When Loay Almously arrived with his family in Toronto in July, he was struck by its green, wide open spaces. It reminded him of Syria, before the grinding civil war reduced a lot of its cities to rubble and forced his family to flee.
Just a month after settling in Toronto, the family of three had welcomed a new addition—a baby girl, now five months old. They named her Masa, or “diamond” in Arabic.
Almously, whose sister sponsored him and his family as refugees, says he sees Canada as an “island of peace” where different cultures co-exist.
“It’s a nice place to start a new life, to raise my children,” Almously says. “They’ll get a chance to get a good education and to have a bright future.”
Journey to Canada
Almously’s journey from Syria to Canada began in Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, where he worked as an information technology engineer.
In late 2012, he explains, the regime escalated its efforts to turn his hometown into a military base for its operations against rebel groups. When two rockets struck the roof of his home, Almously and his family escaped to Irbid, Jordan.
“We lost our house, we lost everything beautiful,” he tells New Canadian Media. “We lost the good relations we had with our neighbours.”
The family spent two years in Jordan, sharing an apartment with Almously’s parents and brother who had fled Syria earlier.
In Jordan, Almously was a project director at Jesuit Refugee Services, an NGO that provides social services, health care and education to those forcibly displaced.
When two rockets struck the roof of his home, Almously and his family escaped.
It hasn’t been an easy life for Syrians in Jordan, who run the risk of being deported if they’re caught working, says Almously. His parents and brother stayed in the refugee camp for six months before they could pool their resources to find a shared apartment.
The process to come to Canada took eight months and involved a series of interviews, security checks and medical exams.
Almously and his family are among the 2,300 Syrians who have resettled in Canada since 2011. He is hopeful that the rest of his family will be sponsored by the Trudeau government as part of the plan to resettle 25,000 refugees by February 2016.
But he shares the concerns that single men might be excluded from the program, which prioritizes women, children and families.
“Many of them have lost their families because of the war,” says Almously. “We have to think about those people more before making the decision to exclude them.”
Bringing refugees to Canada
Syrians are a lot like Canadians, who are warm and welcoming, he states. “Syria is a beautiful country. Many refugees were welcomed before without any obstacles. We received the Iraqi people, the Lebanese in 2006,” he says. “The Syrian people are peaceful.”
Ratna Omidvar, head of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange, says the Liberals’ two-month delay in resettling the refugees could be an opportunity for it to consider all cases, regardless of gender.
With regards to the potential for young men to be excluded from the resettlement program, Omidvar says, “I’m a little worried, but I’m hopeful that with this little space they’ve [the government has] given themselves, they’ll be able to look at those most vulnerable.”
“The Syrian people are peaceful.”
Though Omidvar is disappointed the family she’s privately sponsoring won’t be celebrating Christmas here, she hopes the deadline extension gives organizations more time to sort out housing issues.
For example, Ottawa Centre Refugee Action, a grassroots group, is planning for the arrival of its first sponsored family. It’s using this time to mobilize members of the community to act as temporary hosts, interpreters or guides.
“We have the strength and the capacity to be opening our doors to those who are initially strangers to us, and over time, we’ll get to know them,” says Angela Keller-Herzog, founding member of the group.
Culture shock ahead
Still, there are many challenges facing refugees beyond such practical realities as finding housing and employment, according to Omidvar. “There’s the initial feeling of shock and displacement, coupled by strangeness . . . dropping that mistrust of government and institutions, and maybe, of people who are different.”
Refugee children, forced to grow up quicker than most in order to survive, will have to relearn what it means to be a child, she says. But they can also help their parents bridge the cultural gap.
“I’m confident that the children will be the first to become like us, and they will take that message home to their parents.” says Omidvar.
As for Almously, he is working “survival jobs” now, but hopes to find work in the humanitarian field.
Happy as he is to have left, he holds out for the day he can bring his daughters back to Syria for a visit. “We are a nostalgic people,” he says. “We have this hope that Syria will recover again.”