Sponsoring a Syrian Refugee Family
Our friendship began fifteen years ago when our sons were toddlers at the local preschool. We shared concerns about how to raise our children. How could we help them learn to read quickly? Should they play hockey or soccer? Should we worry that they were wearing their Halloween costumes to school in February? But above all, we worried about how to help our children become caring people. Most children in our Rosedale–Moore Park neighbourhood of Toronto enjoyed every possible material and educational advantage. Our children were studying in enriched and French immersion programs, learning piano from a venerated teacher, and participating in a multitude of sports and arts activities. How would they learn gratitude, generosity, and humility? There was no class for that.
We resolved to teach our children by example. Over the years, we collaborated with friends to contribute to our community in small ways. We raised funds for a Toronto urban hospital, supported orphaned youth in Ontario, and financed a program for AIDS victims in Swaziland. In the summer of 2015, the news of millions of displaced Syrians distressed us profoundly. We wanted to do more than contribute financially. We wanted to work together with our children to extend a personal welcome to as many Syrians as we could.
It took only a few weeks to gather a group of seven families who wanted to work together to sponsor one or two Syrian families. Our group included lawyers, finance professionals, management consultants, stay-at-home parents, a banker, a doctor, a nurse, and an accountant who were willing to share the varied tasks of settling a new family. When pictures emerged in the media of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, we had many more people wanting to join us. We contacted our local church, which had experience sponsoring refugees, and together we identified the best process to apply as sponsors. In a few months, seventeen other local sponsor groups formed to submit private applications in partnership with Rosedale United Church.
Then began a long wait for our family to arrive. Hundreds of other sponsorship groups had also formed in response to the newly elected government’s commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrians, and we had to queue to be matched with an eligible family. Once offered a match, we had twenty-four hours to decide whether to accept the family based on the scant details of ages and health issues that were provided to us.
Our first match was a single mother with seven children. We were thrilled that our journey was about to begin. But two days later, we learned that the matching centre had mistakenly matched the family to two sponsorship groups, and we would not be sponsoring them after all. Days later, we were offered another family of seven. They had been farmers in Syria and had asked to be settled in a rural area. We were torn: was it fair to bring them to downtown Toronto? We shared our reservations with the matching centre and encouraged them to find a sponsorship group in a rural area, confident that they would, but noting that we would happily support the family if they did not. The centre found a rural match within the day.
Finally, in early February 2016, we were paired with a family who had four teenaged boys similar in ages to our own children. This felt like the right match for us. We researched neighbourhoods that would meet the family’s needs, visited schools, and began gathering furniture and clothing. We waited for weeks, then months. Were they ill and unable to travel? Had they decided against coming to Canada? As we waited, the government was bringing Syrians to Canada by the planeload. Most were government-sponsored refugees who spent weeks in hotels before accommodations could be secured. In January 2016, there were 950 government-sponsored refugees living in hotels in the Toronto area. Affordable rentals in Toronto were becoming scarce, but we had secured a three-bedroom apartment for our family, not having any idea when they might arrive. We were outraged that so many refugees were living in limbo in hotels while hundreds of private groups like ours were waiting to help.
At the end of February 2016, the government hit its 25,000-refugee target and suddenly Syrians stopped arriving. The non-profit group, Canada for Refugees, reported that some 2,900 refugees who had been approved were still waiting to get on a plane to Canada, while hundreds of private groups in Canada were also waiting for a family to arrive, including us. The apartment we had rented was sitting furnished and empty. We joined meetings and protests to condemn the government’s decision to slow down the processing of Syrian refugees. As the Toronto Star reported, on March 30, 2016, Arif Virani, then parliamentary secretary for Immigration Minister John McCallum, was faced with “an angry mob of do-gooders” at a public meeting organized by former Toronto mayor John Sewell. The next day, Minister McCallum announced that his staff would accept another 10,000 privately sponsored refugees.
Still, our family did not arrive, and so we started contacting our local MP, Chrystia Freeland, and other personal contacts in Ottawa to get more information. We learned that the mother of our matched family was pregnant and that they had not been cleared for travel. After numerous inquiries, we obtained a cellphone number for our family. We debated whether to call them. What could we say? In the end we decided against reaching out. It had the potential to be too upsetting for both sides, particularly given the information vacuum in which we operated, our inability to speak Arabic, and our powerlessness to influence the process.
By June 2016, our apartment had been sitting empty for four months and we decided to loan it to another refugee family. This family had been staying with a relative who was ill with cancer and needed new accommodations. They were highly educated Armenian Syrians from Aleppo, but had been living in a refugee camp in Jordan and arrived disheartened and overwhelmed. They had lived a good life in Syria and, to our surprise, longed for the stable days of the pre-Arab Spring authoritarian regime despite its abhorrent human rights record.
In early August, we were notified that the father of “our” family had been denied security clearance. Their case would be reviewed again, but we had no indication of their chances for eventual approval. We speculated on what the security issue might be. The father had been a member of the police force. They had four teenaged boys. The mother’s fifth pregnancy ten years after her last seemed unusual, and we had heard that many refugees became pregnant hoping this would accelerate their cases. Our concerns grew.
We were faced with a difficult choice: Do we wait for this family, or do we ask to be matched with another family? How could we abandon them when the boys would so benefit from schooling in Canada? How could we deny this new baby a chance for a start in Canada? But what if the vetting process went on indefinitely? How many other homeless families might be on the list, hoping for good news?
In the end, we decided not to wait any longer, and within days we were matched with the Hassans (pseudonym), a couple with three small children and their grandmother. On October 6, 2016, we received notification that the Hassan family would arrive twelve days later. The Armenian family moved out of the apartment into Julia’s house, and we began frantic last-minute preparations—school pre-registrations, immunization appointments, banking plans, clean linens, cellphones, household supplies, and groceries in the fridge. We put the finishing touches on a thick welcome binder, loaded with information, maps, and instructions in Arabic on everything that they could ever want to know about living in Toronto.
The Hassan family arrived at Pearson Airport, pushing all their belongings in one cart. We clutched a welcome sign in Arabic, not realizing at the time that the family was not able to read. We asked permission to shake hands. The Hassans were grateful to be off the plane. A translator provided the basic information—that for one year our group would provide financial and practical support. Mustafa, the father, was afraid of flying and had not slept for two nights. The children, aged eight, six, and one, were suffering from nausea and needed to change their clothes. Elham, a mother of three, was no more than twenty-five years old. Translated, her first words to us were: “Elham would like to go to school.”
It would take many months for us to learn the Hassan family’s story. But little by little, as they learned English, we learned more about them. They were Kurdish and had fled northern Syria on foot for Turkey four years prior. They had lived in a crowded apartment in Istanbul, hiding the children inside out of fear for their safety. Mustafa had worked intermittently and illegally as a labourer (painting, doing stucco, carrying heavy stones) and hotel cleaner for little pay and had endured verbal and physical abuse because of his ethnicity. They had received no health care and had never been to a dentist. As Elham explained, “A Kurd could lie dying outside the door of a hospital in Turkey and would not be let in.” Only Mustafa had ever been to school, and then only for a couple of years before his father died and he had to work on the family’s olive farm to support his mother. Mustafa’s mother, Fatma, was developmentally delayed, could not care for herself, and suffered health complications from obesity. The children had very little muscle mass, having rarely played outside.
We had been prepared for the prospect that our refugee family might not speak any English. But we had not expected to learn that they were illiterate (and innumerate) in any language. Learning English, just to read a sign or a menu, would be a monumental task. This family had no education, no money of their own, and very uncertain employment prospects. The carefully assembled welcome binder was useless. But Elham and Mustafa had huge smiles and blistering determination to make a life in Canada. We were instantly smitten. The couple was technologically savvy and taught us to use technology to communicate. We would write our English phrase in a cell phone; they would scan the English text; use an app to translate it into Arabic text; and then use another app to translate the Arabic text into spoken Arabic.
The challenges the Hassans would face as uneducated and illiterate newcomers would be different from those that confronted their educated fellow Syrians, but not necessarily greater. Many educated newcomers had experienced the profound disappointment of giving up successful careers and having to settle for work that they felt was beneath them. Professionals found that their qualifications were not recognized. University students had to first perfect their English and then start their studies over again—if they could afford to. Struggles with depression were common.
The Hassans saw opportunity everywhere and were enthusiastic and willing to try anything. Within a week, all six of them were attending school. Within six weeks, they had all been in a swimming pool and to a skating rink for the first time. Fatma, who had never held a pen before, was using crayons to make marks. The older children—Nuhat, and her brother, Hamza—learned to ride bikes, and both they and their young sister, baby Hevrin, went on swings for the first time. Elham and Mustafa were eager to communicate and learned to speak English quickly.
We were grateful that our sponsor group was large. The family had a plethora of administrative appointments with settlement workers and immigration interviews. They had to get identity cards, health cards, sign a lease, open a bank account, and register for school. And we shuttled them to seemingly endless health appointments. The entire family had to endure a painstaking series of health exams with translators. They also had to receive in a few weeks all the childhood vaccinations that Canadians normally receive over a number of years. They were given nutrition appointments, contraception counselling, eye exams, and hearing tests. Each family member had appointments to provide urine, blood, and stool samples. And then there would be an uncertain lab result and we would have to repeat the process. Little Hevrin screamed her way through three gruelling blood extractions until we said, “Enough!” Fatma endured four cardiac tests, three mammograms, several cognitive assessments, and an overnight sleep test at the hospital. One of us kept “forgetting” to book Fatma her required colonoscopy. We decided to delay dental visits until one of the children complained of tooth pain before beginning a series of complex dental appointments.
English classes were both a joy and a source of great stress for Elham, Mustafa, and Fatma. They would start in Level 1 and would need to pass Level 4 to be granted a Canadian passport. Luckily, they had a good sense of humour, and when they were told that their initial assessment suggested that they should be in Level 0, they laughed: “Level 0! We are so bad at English they have to make a special level for us!” Elham relished her opportunity to learn and practiced her new words at every opportunity. Mustafa was frustrated to be the only man in a class full of beginners and worked quickly to be promoted to a higher level. Still, it will be a struggle for them to pass their Level 4. But they are desperate to be granted citizenship and a Canadian passport so they can travel to see their extended family again.
The children, having never been in a classroom environment, also struggled. Hamza in particular found it hard to adapt to the structures that Canadian children consider second nature. Standing in a line, sitting in a circle, and asking to go to the bathroom were as new to the children as the letters and numbers they practiced. By contrast, Hevrin, the baby, who attended a free daycare while her parents attended English classes, was soon learning both English and Kurdish with ease. The stimulating daycare was an added incentive for Elham and Mustafa to continue with their English courses.
The Hassan family did not appear to endure some of the cultural shock that other Syrian families experience in Canada. Only Fatma wore a head covering, and Mustafa was more engaged in household tasks than most Canadian fathers. But the cultural attitudes and ethnic prejudices they had learned in Syria and Turkey were difficult to change. We tried early on to describe Canada’s tolerance for different cultures and traditions. We explained that we had LGBTQ friends and that members of our group were of Arab and Jewish origin. But unlearning takes time. Elham would point at women wearing burkas and say, “Arab terrible.” They discouraged Nuhat from befriending the only other Syrian girl at her school because she was Arab. They resisted connecting with other Kurdish people that we knew because they were Iraqi.
But within a year of living in Canada both Elham and Mustafa had friends and work colleagues from different cultures. Mustafa befriended a Turkish neighbour who would often pick up the children from school for them. Elham secured a job in a Middle Eastern grocery store, serving “customers from every country.” Although she still could not read, she was valued for her fluency in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and now English.
Many other Syrian sponsor groups had to extend their financial support beyond the twelve-month commitment, but the Hassans were eager to get jobs before our sponsorship was fully complete. We concluded our financial transfers to them with enough money in our account to start thinking about sponsoring another family. With only a little help from us, both Mustafa and Elham secured jobs with the first employers that they approached. Mustafa, never having driven a car before, passed his road test after just four in-car lessons. They became determined to save money to buy a house. Still, at the time of writing, they have a long way to go to be fully independent. They cannot read their mail or notes from the children’s school and are dependent on us to negotiate rent reviews, employment contracts, and cellphone terms. Banks, ATMs, and credit cards are still new to them.
As sponsors, we have learned a lot as well. Most importantly, we have learned that refugees are not “lucky.” How many times have people told the Hassans how lucky they are? Sure, they are lucky that they were not in their village when it went up in flames. They are lucky that only one of their nephews and a few of their neighbours are dead. They are lucky that they did not catch deadly parasites from the scant food and untreated water in Syria and Turkey. But the family lives in constant fear for the safety of their friends and relatives. Fatma fears that she will never see her mother or brother again. Elham desperately misses her mother and nine siblings who are scattered in different countries around the world. Mustafa, despite all his optimism, goes through periods of deep sadness. He once told us he sometimes felt that he would rather be starving in his village than living comfortably here in Canada.
The second lesson we have learned is that sponsorship is not parenthood. The Hassans were entirely dependent on us for the first few months to help them shop, attend appointments, and communicate with the children’s teachers. We doted on them, but we were also very bossy. When they skipped English class or missed an appointment, we would reprimand them. We checked in each weekend to make sure that the children were getting to the park. We wished the adults would be more involved in the children’s schooling and were frustrated when the dozens of books we and others had given them remained hidden away in the back of a closet. We were incensed when they spent “our money” to buy two new cellphones at over $1,000 each. It took some time, but we eventually realized that newcomers need to make their own decisions, even if they are “bad” decisions.
We had a party with our whole sponsor group to celebrate the Hassans’ first year in Canada. The children played soccer, Fatma opened her birthday gifts, and the adults traded memories of the year we had shared. We mentioned to Mustafa that he must be missing his extended family very much. “Family?” he replied, “I love my family. I have a very big family here in Canada.”