John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Newcomers, new worries
Debt, housing and education are only some of the concerns faced by recent arrivals in Canada – especially for those who arrived before the recent wave. Justine Hunter and Mike Hager report
A planeload of Syrian refugees landed in Canada on Dec. 27. The new arrivals, having fled war in their home and then endured years of hardship in refugee camps, were overwhelmed by the warm reception.
Bilal Alfaloji was on that plane and is now in Vancouver with his wife and three young children, sharing temporary lodging with dozens of other families. "It was a really big surprise, the welcoming from the people," he said. A metal worker by trade, Mr. Alfaloji is eager to begin a new life: "I'm ready to work."
Not far away, at an austere apartment in Surrey, two sisters sit on a sofa, framed on each side by their elderly parents. Both their husbands remain overseas. The women do not want to be identified for fear it will put their men in danger.
One sister has a teenage son, fluent in English. The other woman has three school-age children.
The children have not seen their father since they left Syria four years ago.
The families have been in Canada since last spring. The thrift-shop furnishings and empty bookshelves give away their minimal finances, but one of the boys materializes in the living room bearing a tray of Syrian coffee in delicate china cups for their guests.
Starting out with almost nothing in a new country is a daunting task, but the new refugees have a head start compared to those who managed to make it to Canada before the federal Liberals came to power in November.
One key difference is that the newcomers – refugees who arrived on Nov. 4 or later – will not carry thousands of dollars in debt to the government of Canada for their transportation and processing costs. Reunification of families who have been split up in the process of fleeing the war in Syria is now easier, too.
Over coffee, the Surrey sisters share their worries.
The opportunity to bring their husbands to Canada is rapidly closing. They are bewildered, unable to navigate the Canadian immigration system. And looming over them is another deadline: In a few more months, they will be obliged to begin repaying the $11,800 they collectively owe the federal government.
Under Canada's Immigration Loans Program, the two Surrey sisters were able to borrow to pay for travel to Canada and medical examinations required to determine their admissibility. After the first year, they are required to begin repaying that loan over a six-year period.
The Liberal government has promised to waive those costs for the 25,000 Syrian refugees they have promised to bring in starting on Nov. 4. Last week, Immigration Minister John McCallum said no such relief will be offered to those who came before.
"We were not the government prior to November the 4th," he said. In the future, he added, it's possible that the government will cover the cost of flights for all refugees, "but that decision has not been made."
The debt weighs on the two sisters in Surrey, but for the past eight months, they have pinned their hopes on the arrival of their husbands.
Samy al Aloul, a 32-year-old mechanical engineer from a suburb of Damascus, said anywhere was preferable to eking out a living in Lebanon, where his family rented out an apartment before coming to Canada. His father, mother and younger sister would join them at the end of December after the whole family was sponsored by relatives already living in Alberta's capital.
"It's so hard in Lebanon, the Lebanese citizens are [also] struggling there," he said. "It's a horrible life there.
"We like the people here [in Edmonton], all the people are nice and they give you a helping hand and it's a nice society."
Though they arrived well into the clemency period for travel loans, Mr. Al Aloul says he still doesn't know whether he and his family have government debt.
"Nobody tells us."
Mr. Al Aloul's cousin Maya Zaitoun, who arrived in Edmonton five months earlier with her older brother and parents, said her family was shocked when they received the government's first request for payment on the $1,465 each of them owed for travel to Canada, as well as the medical exams required to determine their admissibility.
"At first, they told us they want $80 every month for every person, but we told them we can't because just my brother works now," she says.
The family was able to negotiate one monthly payment of $100 until they are able to pay more, she said.
Ghada Al-Adhami said her in-laws – five adults and two children – are having no problem paying the small monthly installments for the flights that led them to Edmonton and away from three years of purgatory in Lebanon.
That's in part because her husband and a friend were able to get one brother-in-law a job painting and another work as a janitor.
She admits that without a network of friends and family to lean on, refugees without English skills "cannot find work with English people."
"But if they know someone Arabic and they speak Arabic, they can work with them and everything is good," she said.
JASON FRANSON/For The Globe and Mail
Jenny Kwan, the New Democratic Party critic for immigration and refugees, cannot offer the women reassurances. In a meeting with them, she collects the information and promises to follow up back in Ottawa. The policy change around family reunification has made it easier for families to come together in Canada provided the proper paperwork is done within a year. But the sisters, who have done the paperwork for their husbands, don't know whether they qualify for the new program, and the one-year window is running out. They've heard nothing back from immigration officials and are losing hope.
One sister asks: "What will happen if he doesn't get in within one year – will he never come?"
There are other challenges facing refugees now that will only grow as thousands of new arrivals land. Cutbacks to education programs in recent years have created long waiting lists for those who need to learn English, although the province recently announced new funding to provide language training for certain high-demand trades.
Chris Friesen is heading up the Syrian resettlement program in Metro Vancouver for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. He said the patchwork of policies and shortages of services reflect poor planning.
"Nothing impacts this country as immigration will in the coming decades and I don't believe we have a long-term vision or plan," he said. "What is our immigration level for 2016? We don't even have a plan yet for this year."
In the short term, however, Mr. Friesen would like to see the government abandon its pursuit of debts from refugees for the cost of travel.
"There is a significant disconnect here," he said. "Since 2002, we have been selecting refugees on the basis of vulnerability. Saddling families with interest-bearing loans of as much as $10,000 does not align with the humanitarian objectives of the program."
And, he said, the shortage of English-language classes is going to become critical as thousands of refugees arrive in the coming weeks and months.
After listening to the sisters and their neighbours, Ms. Kwan gives vent to her frustration. She does not want to undermine the government's efforts to resettle these traumatized and vulnerable families who have fled a war zone and come to Canada for a better life. But she sees the inequities, the glitches and the lag time in getting this ambitious project moving as unnecessary burdens.
"We made them welcome, now we need to follow through," she said. "We need to make sure the resettlement services are in place so that they can build their home in Canada."
Mr. McCallum tacitly acknowledges the difficulties. "We have now demonstrated, I think, an ability to get the machine up and to deliver the refugees to Canada," she said. "The next phase – and it won't be easy, it won't always be totally smooth – is to welcome all of these individuals to Canada, to ensure that they get a good welcome, to ensure that they find a place to live and get services that they require."
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Lost in the details
In the rush to meet the Liberal government's commitment to open Canada's doors to Syrian refugees, it was inevitable that some little details would be overlooked. But those small matters can become insurmountable obstacles for newcomers.
Ebraheem Abo-Khoroj grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. When he reached Grade 12, he was told it was time to prepare for his obligatory army service. With the shelling and violence around him, he chose to flee instead.
His journey to Canada was circuitous, through Lebanon and later Malaysia, where he worked as a waiter for two years. But when he tried to leave the country, he was arrested and spent more than two months in a jail cell in Kuala Lumpur before United Nations officials were able to negotiate his passage to Canada as a refugee.
"I'm always a refugee," he says in Arabic. He says this with an ironic laugh. Being vulnerable and insecure has been imprinted on this young man, but he still yearns to go to school and put down roots.
He arrived in Canada on Nov. 13 and was given a temporary residency card – his only official paperwork. He was relieved to be safe, but soon discovered that he is still not secure. The promised paperwork that would allow him to return to school or to work has not arrived.
"I can't work, I can't study, I can't do anything," he said. He knows he needs to learn English, but, without proper documentation, he hasn't been able to register for classes. "All the schools have rejected me."
There is a phone number on his temporary-residency document issued by the Canadian government. He called the number and was told by a bureaucrat he needs to pay $550 to process the needed paperwork. Having arrived with nothing and unable to work, he has no means to pay. "I don't know what to do."
He currently shares an apartment in Surrey with an Iraqi refugee. There are a number of Arabic-speaking refugees in this neighbourhood, and although they lean on each other for support, this is an astronomical amount of money to someone living on welfare rates.