A look into the life of a Syrian refugee family in Canada

The conflict in Syria has been going on since March 2011 and has affected 5.6 million Syrians. The conflict began when protestors demanded that president Bashar al-Assad end his authoritarian practices such as censorship and violence against anybody who opposed his regime. In March 2011 a group of children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. Locals took to the street to protest against political and economic reforms. Security forces conducted arrests and fired at protestors. As protests went on the Syrian government used more and more extreme forces such as tanks, artillery attacks and helicopters. At one point it was suspected that chemical weapons were used and as a result, after discussions, an agreement was reached between Russia, the United States and Syria that chemical weapons would be taken under international control. In 2013 five Islamic militants started an uprising. These militants called their new organization ISIS. A large number of Syrians fled to Turkey because of this civil war.

Menal Abdulkdir and her three children Yezen, Noor and Rama arrived in Canada on Feb. 3, 2016. They are one of many families that arrived in the country through the Syrian refugee program put in place by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government. The program entailed that the Liberal government would resettle both refugees in Canada through private and government-funded sponsorship. The Abdulkdirs were privately sponsored by a faith-based organization called ICNA Relief. The family previously lived in Turkey as refugees.

ICNA follows the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program. The project manager at ICNA Relief Adu Nauman Tarek explains how the model works by combining the efforts of government and local sponsors to help refugees. “This specific model we follow is there are different stakeholders. So, we do have the government, then ICNA Relief Canada and then we do have local sponsors. So, usually for a specific program known as BVOR which is blended visa officer recommended refugee government send us the profile, we select them and when we select we send the profile to our local sponsors in different communities and if local sponsor likes or choose one of the families and then we complete the legal process application part,” Tarek says.

ICNA Relief receives profiles of families and individuals and selects them based on needs, destinations and the request of local sponsors. “So, we take into many factors so, family size and who is more deserving because profile has got enough details to understand their need, and then they also say their city of destination. For example, if a family is saying the city of destination should be Mississauga and I do not have a local sponsor in Mississauga, at that time available, so, I cannot sponsor them, right. It’s also based on the wish of the local sponsor group. So, if local sponsor group who prefers to have a family then we don’t give them individuals,” he says.

ICNA Relief is funded through donations and fundraisers. The funds are then given to the refugees. Figure #1 shows how funding is divided when it comes to government-sponsored refugees. This data was provided by the Communication Director for MP Iqra Khalid, Samuel Forrest. According to the data 58 percent of the funding goes towards shelter, 34 percent is given for basic needs, five percent for public transit and two percent for communication.

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 7.13.18 PM

  (Figure #1 )

“Is that the end of the day program is funded by our donors. It’s fully our donors. Some programs are partially funded by the government. Most of the sponsorship program (is) run by us and funded by our donors is $5, $10, $20, or $5000. Whatever amount that is a contribution of many people, meaning good hearts,” Tarek says. He says he believes when you reach out to people with the cause that the money will end up coming. “One sponsorship means lots of money. It’s all a challenging right but this is our job. What I believe is that if you believe in a cause, take this cause to the people, make the people understand and love that cause the money will come there anyway. So, this is what we do regularly. I say I don’t have any relationship with any refugee families. No blood relationship, no ethnical relationship but I’m attached to this, my heart is attached to this because I believe in this cause. and I take this cause and as a team ICNA Relief Canada and our volunteers, we take this cause to the people,” he says.

Tarek says when refugees arrive they don’t realize that ICNA is not funded by the government and expect more funding. The refugees think that ICNA is funded by the government and complain to the volunteers who donate money and time so they still expect more. The government is not donating anything. They are making money out of this program and when refugees complain it is very demotivating for many volunteers, he says.  Refugees often go to government when they feel there isn’t enough funding available through the private sponsors. Executive Director of ICNA Relief Canada Shaukat Hussain says this is the result of not understanding how the system works, so some refugees file complaints to the government. Hussain says “Sometimes they complain to the government. The government has set principles and guidelines, and they know what our role is what our responsibilities and they acknowledge we are doing more than what our responsibility was.”

   (Abu Noman Tarek Interview)



The Syrian Refugee Sponsorship appreciation dinner at Sagan Banquet Hall on April 13 2019. (Photograph courtesy of ICNA Relief)



Executive Director of ICNA Relief Shaukat Hussain on the left and Project Manager Abu Noman Tarek on the right. (Photograph by Fatima Baig)

The Abdulkdir family consists of Menal Abdulkdir who has three children her son Yezen Abdulkdir and daughters Rama and Noor. The Abdulkdir family members tell their story of moving from house to house in Syria and hardly having access to electricity.  “In Syria, it was difficult for us because sometimes we had to move out a lot because of the war, but we’re lucky to survive. When we moved to other places usually they were abandoned or they don’t have lights and we had to light candles just to see where we were going,” says Yezen. They didn’t have enough rooms in the house for everybody and their grandparents had to sleep in the living room. “All I know is it had two rooms but it wasn’t enough to fit us all usually my grandparents had to sleep in the living room but it was okay for them,” Yezen says. Saadia Jamal is the social service volunteer at ICNA Sisters which is a part of ICNA. Jamal says the Abdulkdir family didn’t have enough to eat in Syria. “The family with two sisters, their husbands were killed in the war. One sister was living in Turkey and the other one was like living in a camp. In the camp they were eating leaves and sometimes they don’t have anything to eat,” she says.  Jamal says she appealed to donors and was able to receive 20 to 30 donors for the family “Money wasn’t a big challenge and I had 20-30 donors every month we had to give the money to the refugees. I appealed to my friends and my community,” she says. Jamal says she raised around $15000 to $18,000 “I was raising around $15000-$18,000. I always had the money for them because we had to give them rent and give them a lot of money every month,” she says.

 (Saadia Jamel interview)

 The executive director of ICNA Relief Shaukat Hussain says he has witnessed what life is like first-hand in refugee camps when he went and visited them. “Sometimes they do not have any shelter, sometimes they do not have anything to eat. Then the biggest challenges they go to the camps, and camps are temporary setups. Most of the time, what I found children and especially women, they are vulnerable. They get abused as well. So, they lack everything. hygiene and food and shelter, and health, everything they compromise,” he says. Hussain says the state of the refugee camps depends on the country. Smaller countries have a hard time supporting refugees. “It depends from country to country, from the government. Some countries they cannot afford to support refugees but refugees the influx is there they are coming the pressure is, but they are not able to handle like Lebanon, Jordan, they are smaller countries. But Turkey, though their language is different Turkish language and Arabic Syrians there was speaking Arabic but still, Turkey had the best refugee camps I have ever visited. Afghani camps, I was at the Kashmiri camps I have visited Rohingya camps and I found that Turkey they were very open to accommodate and their slogan was, they are our brothers and our sisters,” he says. There is also a lack of healthcare and education in the refugee camps, a situation Tarek says is worse than a prison.   The refugee camp is an open place but is a very limited area. It is like living in a prison. At least in the Canadian prison system. there is an education system but the refugee camps are worse than a prison system. The camps are an open prison because there is no school and that means no future for the children. Then no healthcare, No job. So as a child in a refugee camp, you have no hope. No right to dream anything big and no future, he says.


Syrian Refugee Sponsorship appreciation dinner at Sagan Banquet Hall on April 13, 2019. (Photograph courtesy of ICNA Relief)

Syrian refugees face several challenges when they arrive in Canada. Most Syrian refugees don’t speak, write or understand English or French. Many also face employment struggles. This is because of the language barrier and because qualifications from Syria or other countries don’t transfer over to Canada. Needal Ghadi, Christine Massing, and Crystal Giesbrecht are the authors of an article Language and Identity Development Among Syrian Adult Refugees in Canada. Needal Ghadi is an instructor at the University of Regina. Christine Massing is an associate professor in early childhood education at the University of Regina. According to Ghadi, Massing and Giesbrecht, refugees who have previously worked and were the primary breadwinners before they arrived in Canada feel like they won’t be able to secure employment through English classes, However, at the same time, it’s hard for them to find employment without knowing the primary language that is spoken in Canada. Many students face challenges in the Canadian education system since they don’t speak the language. Students also have a difficult time making friends in school because of the language barrier. Many children only speak Arabic, and this can result in isolation and difficulties in making social connections and expressing themselves.Anna Kirova wrote a report examining the experiences Syrian refugees had with the education system in Canada. According to Kirova, it has been found that English training classes have not been efficient enough to “feel good and make connections with Canadian born students.”

Many Syrian refugee families also struggle with mental health issues. Since they have come from a war-torn country, they often live in trauma and experience things such as anxiety, depression and PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Nadim Almoshmosh wrote about the role of war trauma survivors in managing their mental conditions. According to Almoshmosh “a cross-sectional study on Syrian refugees in a tent city in Turkey showed 33.5% prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”


Syrian Refugee Sponsorship appreciation dinner at Sagan Banquet Hall on April 13, 2019. (Photograph courtesy of ICNA Relief)

 Syrian refugees take part in a publicly funded English class. The Abdulkdir family didn’t know any English when they first arrived. They only spoke Arabic. “It was hard to communicate with other people because I didn’t speak any English. that’s the most difficult thing,” Noor says. She says it took her a year to get comfortable with the language. She is currently 14 years old and was 11 when she first arrived in Canada. “It took me the entire Grade 5 because when I came here I was Grade 5,” she says. Noor’s school provided her separate classes so that she could work on her English. “When I go to school, they take me to a period, just so we could learn more English and so they can help me more and so I can get comfortable with the community in the classroom,” she says. Because of the language barrier, Noor says she and her siblings Yezen and Rama interacted with others who spoke Arabic. This helped build confidence. “It helped me not to get shy when I talk to people because I am pretty shy when I talk to people so they helped me not be shy,” Noor says. The Abdulkdir family faced the same issue when they were in Turkey and because of that they were provided with a translator. Menal says the language issues have hampered her and her children’s abilities to socialize. “We don’t speak or write Turkish very well. Over there they speak and write in Turkish,” Menal says this limited their ability to socialize and connect with people in Turkey. Her son Yezen says “I don’t speak to Turkish people because they won’t understand what I’m saying.”   Yezen says. Canada’s other official language is French and for Syrian refugees, learning French be very challenging. Yezen says he started taking French when he was in Grade 5. “When I came to Canada, we didn’t take French lessons and I didn’t even know about French. I was in Grade 5, I went to another class to take French but it was a struggle,” he says. Because of how Yezen struggled, Menal says she thinks French homework shouldn’t be given. “They shouldn’t give any student French homework at all because nobody learns French that quickly,” she says. His teacher agreed that Yezen would get extra help with French during the school’s lunchtime. Language is also a struggle for many sponsors who don’t speak Arabic. Jamal of ICNA Sisters says she found it hard to communicate with the Abdulkdir family. “The only problem is we don’t know Arabic so we can’t communicate,” she says. As a result, ICNA Sister connected them with a member who spoke Arabic to help. Menal says she wants her children to speak Arabic at home and as Yezen, Noor and Rana understand more and more English there is a communication gap between Menal and her children. “To be honest sometimes when kids speak English I can’t understand,” she says. Menal says she tries to get Yezen to speak Arabic. “I told him I can’t give you anything if you don’t speak Arabic,” she says.

Syrian refugee students also face academic challenges along with social challenges, according to Anne Kirova who wrote a report examining the experiences Syrian refugees had with the education system in Canada. Syrian refugee students aged 14 to 18 often have had their education interrupted in Syria and as a result, are often behind in academics. Some also opt-out of school in Canada and only take the minimal amount of English training. The Abdulkdir family were enrolled in school and English class a couple of weeks after they arrived in Canada. “After a week we took the women to school, we took them to the Learning Center on Elm Street and they admitted and they give us an orange slip. Then we had to take the kids to school. Then we arranged to pick and drop them to school. The bigger kids are going to T.L Kennedy. Then the mothers got admission to Rainbow Peel to learn English,” Jamal says.The Canadian school system uses age to place students in grades instead of their educational background. “I didn’t study a lot in Turkey because I was in Grade 3 in Turkey. It was hard because there is a lot of stuff you have to focus on. But here they focus on your English more than like anything because you’re a newcomer so they have to focus on your English more than anything else,” Noor says. Noor and Rana say they supported and helped each other with school work. “We had homework, they gave us two books to read when we come back from school. We helped each other with reading and translating. She helped me a lot with that,” Noor says about her sister Rama. To make Yezen feel more comfortable he was taken on a tour of the school. “When I first came they took me around the school they told me what everything is and how to use it. Then after that, I started learning English,” he says. However, he says he still struggled with approaching teachers and asking questions. His teacher would say “you should know this by now, but I wouldn’t know it and she wouldn’t help me,” he says. Menal says she approached the school to discuss her concerns about her son.She said ‘I have 20 students in the same class’,” she says.

The Abdulkdir family has faced several challenges when it comes to family separation such as homesickness and missing family. “Sometimes my mom calls to say ‘she wants to see us’,” Menal says.Menal says she is often reminded of her parents who are back in Syria. “I went to the market and saw old man and women and remembered my dad and mom,” she says. Menal says finds it difficult to speak to her parents because of the lack of internet connection in Syria. “I spoke with my mom, my dad, and my brother but there is no internet when I want to call him it doesn’t connect,” she says. Menal and her sister Raja arrived in Canada together. In her application, Menal stated that she wanted her sister to come with her. “When I was in Turkey and applied to the UN my sister and I wrote on the paperwork I can’t leave my sister,” she says. Menal says feels like she and her sister were accepted because Canada was looking for bigger families. “I think it’s because at that time they needed more people and my sister and I have a big family,” she says.

Menal has four sisters and a brother and two parents. Currently Menal and one of her sisters Raja are in Canada with their children. One of her sisters is a Syrian immigrant in Germany and another is a Syrian immigrant in Turkey. Menal’s parents and brother are currently still in Syria. Many Syrians when applying as refugees don’t get information on their file. The same thing happened to Menal’s parents. “They were applying before, but I don’t know what happened,” Menal says.

ICNA’s Tarek has seen homesickness among Syrian refugees. “Homesickness is real now thinking of the well-being of their family members with the left behind inside Syria or in the camps is a real concern many of them they always live with, and they request to sponsor their family members but it’s not easy always to sponsor immediate family members,” he says. Menal says she finds it difficult to be separated from her parents because they are elderly. “I wish they are happy but it is difficult. My dad is seventy-five years old. I feel like I should help him here and we should eat together,” she says.“my mom is diabetic and has high blood pressure. Every time I talk to her she is sad. She asks ‘Is everything is okay back home? Is everything okay? Is your daughter okay?’ ” Menal and her sister applied for refugee status for their parents but don’t know what happened to the file and decided not to pursue it because their parents didn’t want to leave Syria. However, according to Member of Parliament for the Mississauga- Erin Mills riding Iqra Khalid where the Abdulkdir family lives, when families are separated it’s the applicant’s responsibility to disclose family members “Normally how it works is that we try to make sure that families stay together. When a family that applies under the government assistance program or even under the private program we try to make sure that there’s a full family and that the mother, the father and the children can travel together and come together. That’s the onus is on the applicants themselves to disclose their family members before they apply,” Khalid says. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plays a central role in family unification. “The UNHCR agency is the central agency for people that are registered refugees or protected persons. So UNHCR plays a very central role in that, it’s really through the UNHCR as to how we verify and we ensure that those refugees,” Khalid says.

 (MP Iqra Khalid interview)

 Along with family separation, there is a sense of culture shock and socialization. “Then cultural shock is huge challenges, because it is from Syria to camp to Canadian culture is huge, a huge shift within few months, while few years so the cultural shock is one of the biggest challenges, languages, Tarek says. Menal says she feels the need to protect her children from peer pressure that comes from the social scene at school. “You have to be careful because of the system here because of the drinking and smoking,’ she says. Menal says she always taught Noor to stay away from that atmosphere. Noor says “she taught us not to do bad things because we are Muslim.” Menal says she feels that if children from Canada went and lived in Syria they would be in shock because of the lack of access that is available there. Noor agrees.“The kids here have phones and Wi-Fi and electricity. It’s going to be different if they go there and live,” Noor says. The Abdulkadir family also had a hard time adjusting to behaviour that might be socially accepted in Turkey or Syria but not in Canada.“The first time my child and my sister’s child went to the park. My daughter saw a little child and she wanted to hug and kiss him but with the system here you have to talk to his mom,” Menal says. Menal says she has a hard time going out to socialize and make friends because she feels like there isn’t enough time. “Because I have to study, do the house cleaning, take care of my children and go to work,” she says. To help with culture shock, ICNA Relief tries to pair refugees with sponsor groups from their background. “We try to help them but is it will take time, because one thing we tried to be in sponsor groups, we tried to bring in the people from their background, from their country from their language. So, we try to communicate with them through their community. we tried to bring in the people from their background, from their country from their language. So, we try to communicate with them through their community,” Tarek says. Sponsors support the refugee or family for a total of one year. From welcoming them from the airport to providing supports for daily living. “One-year financial commitment means at least $40,000 and then one-year settlements service means lots of responsibility from welcoming them from the airport to preparing their home to provide them their start-up time at with all financial and emotional moral support,” Tarek says.

Lastly, many refugee families face mental health issues before and after arriving in Canada. ICNA’s Hussain finds that many families and individuals live in trauma as a result of being in a war-torn country. “When they leave the situation, they might have left their own family behind dead in front of their eyes, their fathers, their uncles, their brothers and sisters. So, they live in trauma. That is the biggest loss especially for young kids.” Hussain said ICNA Relief isn’t able to counsel families since they don’t have access to the refugee camps. However, when they arrive in Canada they can access counsellors and mental health support, Since they don’t have access to the camps other than doing some relief activities, providing them food shelter are some medical support through local partners they can’t do that much. However, when refugees come here they can access the services that are provided by the government such as therapy and counselling. However, because of the traumatized conditions of the camps, it takes time for them to adjust mentally.

When the Abdulkdir family arrived in Canada, the family experienced multiple challenges of losing loved ones and leaving behind others but also challenges of adjusting to a new culture ,language barriers, settling their children to the new education system and economic uncertainty. The programs put together by the Canadian government and private organization have helped them through this. Menal still has a hard time being separated from parents and isn’t able to contact them very often due to the internet connection. Now they seem to have adjusted pretty well and Menal is now working full time , her children are well settled in school. She wants to become a Canadian citizen and be able to have access to more opportunities for herself and her family through citizenship. Each of the Abdulkdir children has their hopes and dreams. Noor wants to become a police officer or a doctor. Rama wants to be a nurse so she can communicate and understand people as well as help them. Yezen also wants to be a police officer because he wants to serve the community. Menal is happy to raise her children in a place of peace with opportunities and hopes they have a bright future.

Author: fatimabaigblog

Fatima is the author of Fatima’s Journey which details her life as a two time liver transplant recipent. it is available on her website www.fatimabaig.com. She has a Bachelors In Journalism and through Journalism she hopes to keep the public informed and give a voice to those who aren’t heard everyday.

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