Sally has been living in Canada for six years, and recently became a Canadian citizen. In her role as a Project Coordinator for Lifeline Syria LS, she manages refugee cases and ensures refugee and sponsors have successful sponsorship journeys.
The Syrian war has forced many people to seek refuge. While European countries were competing to close their borders, Canada showed leadership in providing relief for Syrian refugees. In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turned up at the airport to greet them as “new Canadians” and personally handed them out winter coats.
Thinking about how warm their welcome was reminded me of my arrival to Canada, which was anything but warm. It was a snowy day in early April 2013 when my husband and I arrived at Pearson Airport. We only had light jackets on, and were freezing as we waited to be picked up and brought to our rented apartment.
After several hours of waiting, nobody showed up so we decided to book a hotel. We spent the first few weeks looking for the Canadian agent whom we contracted to rent a place; with several investigations we realized it was a scam. That was our welcoming.
Why have you decided to focus on refugees?
My grandparents were Palestinian refugees. Their stories of struggles during the war and how hopeful they were by keeping the keys of their homes in the hope to go home one day resonate with me. And I know how complex and burdensome the global refugee system can often feel. For that reason, the refugees’ narratives are close to me.
Newcomers’ Airport Welcoming
The most favorite part of my work at the refugee sponsorship project is to do the airport welcoming. The reason why I enjoy the airport welcoming is because of the chance to finally meet the refugees whose cases we’ve been working on. It’s such a great opportunity to witness the results of government and community effort. Every time I go for an airport welcoming, I recall how frustrating my landing was, that’s why with each visit try to make a difference by ensuring newcomers feel appreciated and important by making the first impressions warm and memorable. I enjoy preparing and handing over the welcoming packages to arrivals. I imagine when they walk out the airport doors, a fresh start awaits them.
I enjoy witnessing the happy moments. Whether it’s a family reunion or sponsors meeting their sponsored refugee(s) for the first time. Sponsors who are meeting for the first time with their sponsored refugee families often get anxious; for them, it’s more about getting prepared and having the checklist ticked to ensure smooth resettlement.
Sponsors often bring with them many sentimental moments; hugs, smiles, flowers and they even sometimes thoughtful enough to bring Middle Eastern food! Seeing the joy on the kids’ faces upon receiving their gifts is priceless. I sometimes hear refugees whispering words like ‘’I’m dreaming, I can’t imagine that good people still exist’’. Family reunions, however, are more festive. Although the relationship is relaxed, it’s often blended with tears.
I often wonder why would one dedicate effort and money to help a stranger who he/she never met. I think it boils down to the need of a human connection as both parties (refugee, sponsor) feel their needs are fulfilled when they connect. Although the Refugee Sponsorship Program has many components that made it wildly successful in Canada, in my opinion, the main pillar for this success is attributed to the sponsors. They are the true heroes, who might be not ready to jump in and help or don’t know what to expect, yet are fearless and brave enough to follow their hearts. The Refugee Sponsorship Program is a product of Canadian values and true representation of what a Canadian really means.
How newcomers can prepare for their resettlement?
First, newcomers need to identify their end goals; the more specific your goals are, the easier your way will be. A very important aspect of newcomers’ success is being prepared for what to expect prior to arrival in Canada. As such, two important pre-arrivals resources you can check out online are YMCA and ACCESS Employment. These agencies offer free virtual services to help you prepare and plan for the Canadian job market. You’ll get an introduction to the settlement services available to you once you arrive at the airport. When you complete your immigration papers at the airport, the immigration officers will direct you to the immigration services where they hand you a Welcome Kit with useful information about the settlement resources and agencies and how you can access these services. These social programs are normally delivered free for newcomers to facilitate their integration. My favourite source of all times to find out information about community resources is 211 Ontario.
At some point you might feel that you are on a treadmill running in circles with no visible progress; that’s normal. All you need to do is stay focused and constantly revisit your plans to ensure you are heading towards your goal. In the end, don’t be upset if things sometimes didn’t work out in the timeline you had planned; what is valuable is the learnings you get along the way. As they say, it’s the journey that matters.
Be aware that everything in Canada ‘’takes time’’ and things may not progress the same way you expect. For example, it could take you up to 4 hours get the treatment at the emergency rooms. Doctor appointments may also take months due to long waiting lists. Government applications, finding a job or accessing community services are also examples. Although Canadians are tough and don’t hibernate due to the cold weather, I would attribute this procrastination to the cold weather effect. Just kidding!
My advice to any professional immigrant planning to come to Canada is to ‘’invest in yourself’ and don’t have a victim mentality. Have a plan to get education or certifications from Canadian universities and institutions, this will tremendously help you get your credentials recognised by Canadian employers and boost your employability. Many newcomers think it’s costly in terms of money and time; I would argue that the benefits of Canadian education outweigh the drawbacks. The experience you gain from the classroom, learning the best practices from your teachers and the opportunity to network and learn about your industry during your studies are beyond the costs. Along with education, I encourage you to be proactive and network and learn from other people’s experiences.
My Canadian Experience Takeaways
Immigrating to Canada is a big endeavor for one to undertake. These big changes can change your perspective. The new ideas, values and beliefs one encounters might replace or strengthen existing beliefs or values. What most newcomers would be inspired about is experiencing how Canadians are living together in harmony and respect.
During my early days of landing, I decided to explore Dundas Square, there was an Indian celebration taking place that brought a large number of crowds. I was inspired to see the event and I felt like I’m watching an orchestra. The audience had various skin colours, spoke various languages, and were of many backgrounds, and were enjoying singing and dancing along with the performers. That moment was my first encounter to a new life perspective and I felt inner peace and a sense of belonging.
The Toronto Reference Library became my second home when I first arrived in Toronto. I used to access a lot of library resources for free such as borrowing books, attending workshops, and even meeting friends. I’m fascinated by its architecture; the wall glassed windows, the winding floors and the red carpets provide a warm welcoming for visitors. I enjoyed reading and working while overlooking the greenery spaces at the North side park.
I have recently picked up camping. I so much look forward to the short summer periods to be out in the woods. Camping reminds me of my childhood fun days when our families used to get out together for barbeque trips. I hope I can achieve one of my dreams this summer by buying a canoe and load it on my car and head North like many cool campers.
Do you have tips for new Canadian Citizens?
Citizenship is a turning point for newcomers. During the citizenship ceremony, new Canadians are given, as part of their welcoming kit, the Cultural Access Pass as a citizenship gift. The Cultural Pass is offered by Institute of Canadian Citizenship (ICC) and in the kit, you’ll find information on how to register and pick up your pass. The pass is a card that permits you access to cultural attractions and has many offers that are valid for one year. As such, the pass allows you unlimited access to the most popular museums, and you can get a once-in-a-lifetime 50% off on a trip with VIA Rail for yourself and up to 4 dependents under the age of 18. The Cultural pass was one of the best gifts Canada gave me as a new Canadian. On a monthly and sometimes weekly basis, I received email invitations to register for several art events, like operas, theatre, musical concerts, orchestras. These events fill up quickly, however, so you need to be alert to register promptly. This gift was a great opportunity for me to connect with Canadian Art and learn about Canadian history and heritage, I felt truly included in society and learned about my new home from a different angle.
Canadians are generally a polite and friendly people. Safe chat spaces are topics such as; weather, weekend plans, compliments about someone’s clothing or hairstyle, sports and US politics. Professional attire and ethics are default assumptions. It’s considered rude if you don’t hold doors for people coming behind you, skip the line, or interrupt the other person while speaking. Some Canadians can get upset if you are not comfortable with their dogs, or if they wait a couple of minutes for elevators, or their lattes aren’t crazy hot. First World problems, eh? But Canadians can also be funny people in the most upsetting situations. If you were cramped in the bus like a Sardine box or the subway broke down, you’ll notice that Canadians will start throwing jokes and spark humorous conversations.
Landing in a new place brings many unforeseen challenges that will help you evolve, it also brings rewards that helps you understand yourself better and determine your set of values, aspirations and dreams.