When Nouri Al Hassani arrived in Canada on July 7, 1996, the prime minister was not there to welcome him and his family at the airport. The Iraqi refugees were quite alone – and grateful that someone held up a sign in Arabic to help lead them out of the airport.
Twenty years later, Mr. Al Hassani is providing translation services and advocacy for the newly arrived Syrian refugees in Vancouver. He has successfully navigated the difficult transition to life in Canada, and he joins a legion of volunteers, many of them refugees themselves, who are donating their time and resources to help smooth the way for the newcomers.
"I saw the new arrivals needed help," he said in an interview. In addition to his work as an electrician, he is active in his community, organizing aid for children in Iraq and fundraising to provide school backpacks for kids in need around Metro Vancouver.
The federal Liberal government has pledged to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February. The first wave to arrive under the Liberal plan was greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December. It is an ambitious plan and there will be some bumps in the road as service providers gear up to provide resettlement services for the newcomers.
These families have fled war and hunger and now they are arriving in a foreign land where few of them speak the language. No one appreciates the challenge of putting down roots under such circumstances more than another refugee.
Mr. Al Hassani fled Iraq after his brother and his father were executed by Saddam Hussein's regime. When he and his wife arrived in Surrey with their two toddlers, he recalled, "the first months were very difficult – we had a difficult time even shopping." An elderly man in the neighbourhood noticed the family struggling. The stranger spoke no Arabic, but he would still come and knock on their door to offer the family help.
Mr. Al Hassani hasn't forgotten that kindness. It reminds him that individuals need to fill the gaps in need that government programs can't always provide.
Mr. Al Hassani is also organizing food and supplies to help the new arrivals. Last week, he accompanied New Democratic Party immigration critic Jenny Kwan to meet with Syrian refugees so that she could try to resolve some of the problems that have cropped up in the resettlement effort.
Imad Sawaf has already learned some of the challenges. He has been working with Syrian refugees in the Vancouver area for the past two years, trying to help them find jobs and establish their independence.
Mr. Sawaf, who came to Canada in 1989 as an immigrant from Syria, is now settled with a good job and a business degree. He did not experience the civil war in his country of origin, but he can see the trauma that haunts these newcomers. "The things these people went through – they have so many fears."
He also knows the families are eager to get on their own feet, but he discovered roadblocks when he tried to match the newcomers up with work.
Most of the men have experience in the construction trades in Syria. On a job site in B.C., however, they struggled with the language and with Canadian safety regulations that are far stricter than in their previous experience.
Mr. Sawaf started a company and piloted a project in which workers get specialized training to acclimatize them to local construction standards, and then crews are offered up under the wing of a foreman who can speak English and Arabic. Contractors have had interest in the initiative, but he thinks the potential is greater than he can manage on his own.
British Columbia expects about 2,800 Syrian refugees to land by the end of February under the federal initiative and many will come with construction-industry skills. Mr. Sawaf said he can't train hundreds of workers on his own. And this is the limit of individual volunteers. It would be a marvellous opportunity for a larger construction company – or a trades union – to step up and show support for the refugees. The reward, he promised, would be a skilled and hard-working labour force.
"We don't want to rely on the government," Mr. Sawaf said. "The Syrians are extremely hard workers. The first thing they say to me, 'We want to work, we want to earn our money.' They want to give back."