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Amid administrative hurdles, Syrian refugees settle in Canada

Canada faces logistical issues as it vows to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the beginning of February
Syrian refugees meet their Canadian sponsors for the first time (MEE/Benjamin Dooley)

TORONTO, Canada - Relieved and overjoyed beyond comprehension, soon-to-be permanent residents of Canada stepped off their buses to greet their sponsors. On 21 December, having only arrived in the country hours before after a long flight from Lebanon, tears of relief streamed from the eyes of the Syrian refugees and their Canadian sponsors alike, a moment of gratitude and catharsis as strangers and family met for the first time. They were among the first to arrive at the Toronto Armenian Community Centre, which will act as a conduit to assist half of the Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Toronto, as part of a national plan to bring in 25,000 refugees to Canada by 1 February.

“I’m very excited to be in Canada. I was told Canadians are nice and they are,” said Helena, a young woman who left Aleppo three months ago with her family. “I’m excited to take up the piano and study psychology again. (I’ve) been studying for three years and still need to finish. I want to be a doctor one day, because it’s better I guess.”

Her father, Narati, owned a shoemaking company before it was recently looted. “(We) couldn’t take it anymore. (There was) no electricity, no water, and enough is enough. There’s no solution,” he told Middle East Eye.

While they await the arrival of their brother in Lebanon, their sponsor plans to take them to visit Montreal, after which Narati hopes to restart his business and stay with their cousins.

Zaben Garabedian, a local member of the Armenian Community Centre’s Union, is assisting a young couple to relocate.

“Their brother has been here almost eight months, and sent their papers to our community here, and waited in Syria and Lebanon,” Garabedian told MEE. “But they are Canadian now, and I’m going to help them.”

Community organisations rush to assist

The Armenian Community Centre has had its refugee resettlement programme in place for about four years. Previously, the centre only processed a few families a year, but now they are responsible for a few hundred individuals streaming in each day.

Rita Armoojian, one of several volunteer coordinators, has said that they have largely adjusted to the unconventionally high number of arrivals, but there are still administrative hurdles to overcome.

“The only problem we have now is the landlords, the real estate owners.” Rita told MEE. “They are giving us a hard time in registering the newcomers. They need records, history. You know, they are refugees. They don’t have bank accounts. They don’t have a lot of money to guarantee, so we are trying to solve that problem.”

Guaranteeing long-term housing is hardly the only issue the refugees are encountering. “Most refugees when they flee can’t make a checklist,” said Mahmud, a man in his early 20s who came to Canada from Syria privately seven months ago.

“When I went to register for courses at the University of Toronto, they asked me for my transcripts,” he told a town hall meeting in downtown Toronto on 22 December.

Sponsors offer prayers for Syrian refugees' lost loved ones (MEE/Benjamin Dooley)

“Ironically, that very day three mortar shells fell on the humanities department at the University of Damascus, so I told him that him my transcript was literally on fire! So refugees need to know that bureaucracy is a very real thing that you encounter, and I feel that I’m doing all that I need to do, but sometimes it is frustrating, hitting the wall of a system that I can’t really do anything about.”

The town hall is one of several that members of parliament are hosting in order to streamline the many NGOs and extemporised private resettlement associations in order to increase organisational capacities. Some were private business owners looking to lend a hand, including the owner of several apartment buildings who was willing to let a family stay rent-free for one year, as well as find local work for any skilled refugees such as a welders or carpenters.

Also in attendance at the town hall was Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland, recently returned from Kenya, who hailed Canada’s resettlement policy as a model for other countries.

“I was told by ministers from Indonesia, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Malaysia and the United States what a powerful message Canada is sending the world about who we are as Canadians, but about what the rest of the world should be doing,” she said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been in attendance at Pearson Airport in Toronto to greet the very first of the refugees on 10 December.

“A lot of people mentioned to me the choir that sang at the welcoming ceremony in Arabic about Mohammed,” Freeland said. “Many people have said that they are worried that this is a time where to be Muslim is to be considered a bad person around the world, and it’s so important that Canada is doing this.”

The government’s plan calls for a total of 50,000 refugees to be settled in Canada by 1 December 2016, with over half that number sponsored by the government. The original plan was to expedite private applications that were outstanding as the new Canadian government took office in order to reach targets quickly while a national processing system was being set up, goals which Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration Arif Virani admitted would not be reached.

“It’s really quite overwhelming what we are doing,” Virani said at the town hall meeting. “Fifty thousand is a relatively small number in terms of the overall need that the situation has created, but it is large at an example of what other countries can be doing. What you see in Europe or the United States, where you see the rhetoric from certain individuals - it’s kind of it’s a very different discussion that takes place here.”

She added: “We also need to find lodging, both temporary and permanent, for the refugees, and we’re hoping that can act as an antidote for the very significant affordable housing problem.”

Despite a general outpouring of goodwill, some have criticised Canada’s refugee plan as overly ambitious, saying that the influx has put a strain on many organisations that are already stretched thin. Many point to the fact that the government has already not been able to meet several of its processing goals.

Syrian refugees in Toronto wait to be cleared to travel to their new homes (MEE/Benjamin Dooley)

Long-term outlook

Many of the resettlement programmes have family reunification as their focus, with assistance from sponsors that donate a minimum of $19,500 in order to bring a refugee family to Canada and cover living expenses for one year. They also sign a contract wherein they are obliged to assist in helping the family with transportation, employment and acquiring health insurance. Refugees are also being brought in through government sponsorships, although government funds are limited and refugees receive less direct assistance than they would through private sponsors.

According to Dr Morton Beiser, a psychiatrist at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto whose research focuses on immigration and resettlement, Canada should expect some long-term issues concerning refugee resettlement.

“Our research showed that those who were privately sponsored did better after 10 years than were government-sponsored, which is sort of what we had predicted,” Beiser told MEE.

“When there’s more human interaction, the private sponsors just go out of their way to do things for people, help them attend to the day to day, help their kids enrol in school, et cetera. These are things the government staff doesn’t have time for.”

Chief among Beiser’s concerns is the long-term mental health of the refugees, particularly a fundamental lack of institutional capacity in Canada in dealing with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“We do have coverage for refugees under the provincial health plan, but the waiting list for any psychiatrist is so long that even native Canadians can’t get in to see one, let alone refugees who will be arriving and registering,” Beiser said.

“Even if we could get those people in to see health care professionals, there really isn’t a lot of knowledge in the health care community on how to deal with PTSD.”

According to Beiser, most studies have shown that 10-12 percent of adult refugees will suffer from PTSD, with even higher rates amongst children and adolescents.

“What we need is some form of a National Observatory to oversee the process of integrating (the refugees), just to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks,” he said. According to him, past programmes of resettlement have been successful, but a lot was unknown about PTSD at the time and treating the disorder may prove critical to the success of some of the refugees in adjusting to a new society.

“I worry we may run the risk of making the same mistakes again,” Beiser said.