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refugee crisis

Syrian refugee Omayma Al Kasem, 26, at the Jordanian Society for Human Development where she volunteers as a mental health aid worker in Jerash, Jordan Dec. 15, 2015. Ms. Al Kasem was a fourth-year law student before fleeing to Jordan. She rejected going to Canada because she doesn't want to separate from family in Syria and Jordan, and because she wants to be a driving force in rebuilding Syria when the war is over.Annie Sakkab/The Globe and Mail

Omayma al-Kasem is bold, forthright and speaks clearly and with confidence. She has completed four years of law school and volunteers as a mental-health worker with a Jordanian charity, and as such, is exactly the kind of Syrian refugee Canada wants to welcome. The trouble is, Ms. al-Kasem isn't interested in coming.

The 26-year-old from Daraa, Syria, is one of a sizable number of Syrians turning down the chance to become permanent residents of Canada. According to UN figures, just three out of every 10 households contacted about resettlement in Canada go on to relocate.

"Some families are still hoping to return home, others are concerned about their ability to integrate into another country – including learn the language," said Aoife McDonnell, an external relations officer at the UNHCR refugee agency in Jordan.

When the UN called Ms. al-Kasem's father, he put the decision to her, who, as the eldest of three sisters living at home, said she has to "think like a mom" after her own mother died. She knew instantly her answer was no.

"In Jordan we are already separated from my two sisters who are in Syria. If we went to Canada we would have to leave my brother, his wife and their baby. I don't want to separate my family any further," Ms. al-Kasem told The Globe and Mail.

Cultural reasons played another role. Although Ms. al-Kasem said she does not feel safe in Jordan and described refugee life as "the lowest level of hell," she said she feared she wouldn't be comfortable in Canada.

"Even in the move from Syria to Jordan, we lost some connection to our religion. If we go to Canada, how can I raise my little sisters in a language and culture I don't understand?"

Ms. al-Kasem's father was a government employee and the family was affluent in Syria. But in Jordan they have gone "back to zero," struggling to put food on the table. However, she believes that by remaining in Jordan, she can be among the first to go home to Syria and rebuild her country if and when the civil war there ends.

While Ms. al-Kasem made an informed decision, she may be in the minority: Among poorer, less-educated refugees, the decision to decline a spot in Canada is often based on false assumptions and unqualified fears.

In Ajloun, a hilly town in northern Jordan, Emad al-Khlef, a father of four from Homs, turned down a spot in Canada. Barely literate, he feared he wouldn't be able to learn enough English to support his family.

He believed his 20-year-old son, Mohammad, paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by security forces in 2011, had no future anywhere: No paralyzed young man could find work or marry, he said.

Mohammad, watching his father with bright, intelligent eyes, had already started learning English and researching life in Canada before his father made the decision. He believed that in Canada he stood a chance of achieving his dreams of a university degree, marriage, fatherhood and a career – all things that have thus far eluded him. But his father's decision was final.

"We are afraid of the unknown," said Mr. al-Khlef. If the family went to Canada, he reasoned, they'd lose their UN food aid and cash assistance worth about $290 each month. The poverty and isolation he knew was preferable to the unknown elsewhere.

Other families from comparable socio-economic backgrounds said they had similar reasons for saying no. Omar Shahadeh, an illiterate construction worker living in Jerash, said it was "better to be among Arabs like us" than to wade into a new and uncertain culture. He said his decision was reinforced by the opinions of friends who doubted Canada's commitment to the resettled refugees.

"People said the government of Canada would only care for us for one month, and then they would leave us. Lots of people are refusing for this reason," said Mr. Shahadeh.

Despite having four children who have scant chance of attending university and beginning careers in Jordan, Mr. Shahadeh, like Mr. al-Khlef, admitted he was afraid of change.

The fathers have become part of a broader trend, where more informed families are taking up offers to resettle in Canada, and those with less access to information are saying no.

For many who do go, the fear of the unknown is overridden by a desire to give their children the chance of a better life, said UNHCR's Ms. McDonnell.

"Many of those who are accepting this chance at a new life tell our team they are doing it for their children, to ensure they have a promising future."

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