What is your story?
My family and I are originally from Aleppo in Syria. I was working as a civil engineer, a project assistant to rebuild the city. My main role was to build bridges between representatives from government and the people of the city and to understand their vision of how the city should be rebuilt. Before the war Aleppo was a center of cultural activity and this project finally felt like we regained the potential to rebuild the city, work together and build bridge with internal stakeholders.
In 2011, violent activity broke out south of the city. At this moment we didn’t think the war would take that long, so we stayed in Aleppo. Every month I was travelling to Lebanon to meet with team leaders to further work on the city rebuild project – for me the dream of rebuilding was very much still alive and I worked with nonprofits to make progress on this project. During 2012 I was scheduled to attend a meeting in Beirut for work and my husband suggested we take our two children on vacation. One month earlier the rebels had freed Aleppo but society had deteriorated dramatically and we were concerned about the safety of our family. The vacation seemed like an escape from the reality we were facing. During our vacation an aircraft attack destroyed the city and we fled to Lebanon to escape and found refuge in a monastery, this institution allowed us to maintain some normality for our children. We wanted to ensure they continued their education and throughout this turmoil this was our priority. Soon we realized that we were no longer on vacation, but at the start of a long journey to ensure our family was safe. After we realized that Aleppo could no longer be our home we returned in 2014 to pack our remaining belongings, and to ensure our safe return to Lebanon we paid a driver to drive our possessions over the border. The driver was kidnapped, our possessions stolen and the last memories of home lost.
My salary was maintained by the German government and they tried to help my family and I as much as they could. As Aleppo had deteriorated the project could no longer move forward and my job irrelevant. I eventually found a small contract involved in an educational program in Lebanon. However, my husband could not find work due to harsh regulations preventing refugees from gaining employment and also wide spread hate towards Syrian refugees. During this period we were so angry towards the community we had been forced to resettle in. Lebanon’s economy was not good, prices were extremely expensive and we did not want to be involved in the black market. We were not treated like human beings and constantly worried about our children and our future.
Eventually, family after family around us left to make the journey to Europe. My husband and I decided we too wanted to make the journey to resettle our family permanently. We considered relocating to Sweden but the second language was predominantly German which neither my husband or I spoke – you can’t build a career and have independent income without knowing the working language of a country. Canada was our final choice and we started to understand what was required to move our family. At this point Toronto was accepting large amount of refugees however it would cost 30,000$ USD to relocate, we were financially exhausted and had no resources to rely on.
A family from Aleppo had a liaison with a Catholic Social Services in Edmonton. This was a private sponsorship program shared between parishes. Originally we were very nervous that the program was a scam, we had heard many stories of this happening to other families after they had used all their resources. We were also afraid to be particular about where we relocated so we jumped for the opportunity, said yes and agreed to relocate in Lloydminister in Edmonton.We started communicating with the parish who was sponsoring our relocation.
We skyped with principals of schools our children would be joining and started to be introduced to the community we would soon call home. As the Canadian government announced 25,000 refugees would be accepted into Canada we received our papers and arranged the final stage of our journey. As we were transferred from one holding location to another we were humiliated by power hungry middlemen looking to profit on our displacement. This was one of the lowest moments in our journey, we kept praying that this move would go smoothly as our future depended on it. As we descended into Pearson airport in Toronto it was the end of a very long and exhausting journey. It was a start of a new adventure. We stayed one night in Toronto hotel then completed the final leg of our journey to Edmonton.
What community support did you receive when you first relocated?
As a community had sponsored us to relocate to Canada, we received a grand welcome and support system upon our arrival. Three families from the church welcomed us at the airport, as well as families from Beirut who had relocated already. There were tears, smiles, hugs, and hellos – this is a moment we will never forget. The parish asked us what support we needed, set up monthly reviews to see how we were integrating and treated us with respect, which we hadn’t experienced in years. We were never seen as just an entity to support financially or a oe-time financial transaction.
What were the immediate cultural barriers you faced?
Our first concern was the stereotypes we would face from a small community. The village had 35,000 inhabitants, mainly Canadians who had lived there the majority of their lives. The local media became interested in our story and asked us to share our experience. I was always eager to explain our story and to expand their understanding of Syrian people and refugees beyond the stereotypes.
How has media on public opinion of immigration and refugees effected your opinion of Canada?
Sometime after our initial interview with the local media, they contacted us for an update on how we were adjusting to our new life. The interview asked us about careers we had found and economic integration. We were honest and stated we had considered moving to Edmonton to find better career options. When the article was published the reaction was extremely negative. People questioned why we had come here if we weren’t grateful for the opportunities we were given. Individuals used stereotypes to attack and humiliate us when I had wanted to share our story to educated people on the challenges we were facing. We were hurt, afraid and scared. The parish were informed and tried their best to have the post removed but were unsuccessful.
Did you feel that the ESL education equips newcomers with practical linguistic skills?
The ESL programs I have experienced are extremely limited. Normally you apply and complete the course online. The programs focus on aspects of language skills which you can only understand if you speak English already. I have also realised that ESL programs are not specialized for newcomer needs. I see many African and Filipino individuals looking for employment in this area and their priority is low level jobs to make a minimum living. Newcomers I know from Syrian desperately need these courses to be able to talk to their neighbors, use English to further their careers and make Canada their forever home. ESL programs do need to be more focused on everyday English to enable newcomers to gain independence in supporting their resettlement.
You are professionally trained as a civil engineer – Do you believe your education and professional experience is valued in the Canadian job market?
When resettling your first priority is to gain employment to provide for your family. My husband was a successful travel agent in Syria and used this experience to gain employment at a hotel in Edmonton. Through my experience I gained employment in career adviser and facilitator to help newcomers improve language skills and career prospective. This role was peculiar to me as I was answering questions which I still had not found the answer for myself. My current employment plays a similar role helping individuals update their resume and search for jobs. I have found that applying for jobs that I have professional experience in, I face other barriers. In a small-town people employ who they know, and having an accent is not always welcome. In my current situation, I feel that I cannot gain an opportunity in my field and sometimes wonder whether my qualifications and experience would mean more in an urban environment.
Do you feel that being ambitious is perceived as a negative trait for a newcomer?
I definitely feel that being ambitious to have a career which I am passionate about is seen as a negative quality of a newcomer. From my experience public opinion sees newcomers who want this as greedy, and ungrateful for the opportunities I have had. It is frustrating because we are grateful, and cannot thank the community for the support we have received. However, we did not choose to be forced out of our homes and lives, why shouldn’t I be able to dream? I too want to fulfill my potential and contribute to the economy of our new community.
Many consider cities to be a better setting for newcomers – do you agree?
I can see both sides of this perspective. Lloydminister can be lonely, with no family, no large income or an Arab community. Small communities often face their own financial issues and see newcomers as an economic burden, but also as the “other”. In a city, an accent and diversity is not strange. I can see the appeal of a big city because you would be less consumed with being the outsider. It is a complex question because we are grateful for the parish community and the familiar faces we see on the street every day, which is unique to a small community. I know Edmonton and Montreal have large Arab communities but we need an economic opportunity for both of us to make this move.
Feelings of alienation and an inability to connect are hard to overcome. You have seen your children socialized through the Canadian education system – how do you think we can provide the same integration opportunity for adults?
Our children through school have met new friends, practiced their English and were integrated into the system on daily basis through school. Adults are burdened with endless questions: is my family safe? Do we have shelter? How can sustain and provide support my family? This is the first barrier to creating integration opportunities for adults: time.
Secondly, our children’s concept of home and belonging is still developing, whereas for my husband and I it is rooted in Arab culture because it is all we have known. In Lloydminster, there is no Arab community that we can find comfort for this craving for home when the pressures of resettling are overpowering. Our family was forced to resettle, it’s extremely unfair and you have to preserver past this to survive. However the longing for home never leaves.
I think one thing which could improve adults ability to integrate with their new communities as adults we are preoccupied with these questions and survival and often do not have outlets to make friends and create positive connections within our new community. One solution is for companies to make time for newcomers to socialize in their work environment for immediate integration with people we interact with every day.
How do you think testimony and research can work together to help raise awareness of newcomer settlement challenges and increase compassion?
I have always been passionate in sharing my story. Despite negative comments I have received when I share my experience I have also seen the positive impact it has had. Through the Catholic social services and rotary club catholic women league, I had an opportunity to visit communities and tell my story. Speaking to someone face to face breaks down walls and stereotypes about Syrian newcomers. In these moments parents connect with me when I say that all that mattered was the safety of my children. It allows me to connect with individuals on compassion and empathy and understand we are just human beings.
What is a change you would like to see in Canadian society to help advocate for newcomers integration?
I think increasing the awareness of newcomer journeys would help to break stereotypes. By showing the positive impact of immigration and how it can help Canada it will increase compassion. By pairing testimony and research I think this will be powerful to change negative attitudes.