Cover Story: Megaphone was welcomed into the lives of Rami, Salma, and little Lilyan to tell the story of a Syrian refugee family finding their way through resettlement
Owning their story
The conflict in Syria had already begun when Rami and Salma got married.
The fighting was spreading east, but it was still calm in their city of Hasaka, in the northeast of the country—so on March 15, 2013, their families gathered to witness their exchange of vows and rings, and to wish the couple luck with the journey that lay ahead.
Three weeks later, Rami and Salma left Hasaka. Their final destination: Lebanon, where Rami had secured a job. The fighting in Syria was getting worse, and they both agreed it would be safer across the border.
Normally, the 640-kilometre journey by bus to Damascus takes seven hours. But seven hours later, they were less than halfway—and it was getting dark. They had already passed through dozens of checkpoints, where the driver would be questioned, the bus searched. Then at one checkpoint, men with guns boarded the bus and ordered all the male passengers off. Then they ordered the women: “Open your luggage!”
“They took money, jewelry, mobile phones,”
Salma says. “When the man passed me, he said: ‘Your wedding ring!’ I told him: ‘Please, let me keep it! I am just newly married.’ The women around me were crying. After a few seconds, he left me.” The couple arrived in Damascus late that night, and early the next morning they hired a taxi and headed for the Lebanese border. “Nowadays, no Syrian can cross,” she says. "Even if you pay $1,000.”
While in Lebanon, Rami worked as a plumber, and Salma volunteered to teach Syrian children music classes, her field of study in university. Each evening they spoke to their families in Syria by mobile phone, sending WhatsApp! messages when they heard news of increased fighting.
Then Salma discovered she was pregnant. When she called her mother to break the news, she revealed another surprise: she had decided to come home to Hasaka to deliver the baby.
“I wanted to be with family,” Salma says. “My mother, my sisters, aunts, uncles. I couldn’t give birth in Lebanon alone.” So eight months later, the couple traveled back to Hasaka, and on January 1, 2014, Salma gave birth to a baby girl, Lilyan. Soon after, they brought Lilyan to Lebanon, where they registered with the UN Refugee Agency as refugees.
Today, Lilyan is squirming on the couch beside her parents on the fifth-floor apartment in the Twin Rainbows Housing Co-operative, just a stone’s throw from Granville Island. It’s a grey June day, the dark clouds bringing wave after wave of rain showers. Salma glances outside and asks,
“Vancouver is like this a lot, the rain?” West coast weather: always a topic of conversation, for long-term residents and new arrivals alike.
Salma leans over and hugs her daughter.
“Lilyan is two and a half years old,” she says. She then rubs her belly. “And you see,” she adds, “I am pregnant.”
The story of a refugee family
Canada responded to the Syrian refugee crisis with warm words and big settlement targets. A total of 28,876 Syrians have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015—at a cost of $700 million.
Refugee resettlement in Canada falls into a few categories, including government sponsored, and privately sponsored.
Government-sponsored refugees receive funding from Ottawa for one year to cover basic accommodation, food, and living expenses. Privately sponsored refugees receive support from organizations that agree to pay all the associated costs. Both categories of refugees can access settlement services, including English classes.
During their first 365 days in Canada, refugees are expected to prepare themselves for the future. After one year, the theory goes, they should be able to provide for themselves and their families, just like every other Canadian: holding down a job, paying the bills, raising their children.
Becoming self-sufficient in a year is a daunting prospect, especially for refugees that arrive without language or employment skills. To complicate matters, settlement services across the country have been overwhelmed by the demand for English classes and childcare, leading to system-wide backlogs. In early July, Canada’s Senate Committee urged Ottawa to take “immediate action” to address these and other problems, which they say have the potential to jeopardize successful settlement. Salma and Rami Salma was born on March 1, 1989. Her husband, Rami was born on May 22, 1985.
They are both from Hasaka in northeastern Syria. “It’s beautiful city,” Rami says, “with a river.” Though Hasaka is in the Kurdish region of Syria, the city itself is diverse. “We have Kurdish, Arabs, Armenians,” she says. “Many people. Christians as well.”
She pauses as she recollects. “Everyone was mixing, and the city was safe. No one asked you anything, or made you cover your head.
“But when the war is beginning, I start to cover—to put on hijab—when we travel. Because people can attack you if you don’t. Even the Christians can get harassed to cover. They do it, because they are scared.”
In 2011, the Arab Spring ushered in a wave of optimism. As uprisings against dictatorial regimes spread across Tunisia and Egypt, protesters took to the streets to call for democracy. Faced with mounting opposition, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad quashed antigovernment protests with brute force. Rebel fighters formed brigades to defend territory, and fighting intensified.
Russia was supporting Assad; the U.S. was supporting the rebels. The Syrian military was committing atrocities; the rebels were too. While world leaders hurled accusations and postured on the global stage, iPhones from citizen journalists on the ground recorded the horrors: bodies buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings, parents crying for dead sons and daughters. Sectarian killings added fuel to the fire, and as the state slowly collapsed, militant Islamist groups formed in the power vacuum.
As desperate refugees attempted to enter Europe—both by land and by sea—the UN was calling it a crisis. But the mass of humanity on the move led, not to welcome, but to closed borders and xenophobic policies across the continent.
Refugees were described as a menace, a security threat, ISIS infiltrators.
Then on Sept. 2, 2015, a photo taken by a Red Cross worker showed Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach. His death highlighted the plight of those fleeing Syria—and suddenly became a Canadian election issue.
From Lebanon to Canada
Salma touches Rami’s shoulder, then gets up from the couch. “To make tea,” she says as she walks towards the kitchen.
Rami smiles. He says he doesn’t know much English—it’s Salma who provides the translation while he speaks in Arabic—but he is willing and ready to learn, he says.
His English classes are scheduled to start in September. I ask about his job in Hasaka: “Plumber,” he says. “And electricity.”
Salma returns with the tea, sets it on the table beside some oatmeal cookies, which Lilyan reaches for. Salma explains that her English classes have started already—she was assessed at Level 4, she says proudly.
I ask about the process that brought them to Canada. “We were waiting for three years,” she says. “Then February they called us, and asked: do you want to go to Canada? We said, ‘Yes!’”
Suddenly, it was underway. An interview one day, medical tests the next. Another interview, this time with Canadian officials. “They asked everything,” Salma says. “How you came to Lebanon, what did you do before, the army, military, a lot of security questions.”
Then the officials said they were finished, to go and expect a call. “We wait for a month,” Salma says. “But nothing.” She pauses. “We felt like giving up,” she says. “But then March 21, they called, and say we are going to Canada—to the city of Vancouver.”
Had she heard of Vancouver?
She laughs. “We didn’t know anything about Canada, even.”
I ask what it’s like for them to be here. Does she feel lucky or guilty—or both?
“We are lucky because Canada is a good place,” she says. “Vancouver is a beautiful city. But it is too far from my family. I want to be around my family, especially now that I am pregnant.”
She places a hand on her swelling belly, then gestures at Lilyan. “When I was pregnant with her, I traveled back to Hasaka so I could give birth surrounded by my mother, my sisters, aunts, friends. But now,” she says, her voice changing. “I don’t want to give birth alone.”
She pauses, bites her lip. “If Canada wants us to be successful,” she says, “they should help us bring our families here, close to us.”
After drinking the tea, Salma tells us she has to leave, to catch the bus to her English class.
Who counts as a refugee?
Throughout history, the scourge of conflict, drought, and other upheavals have led people to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Many religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike—contain references to people fleeing violence for safety elsewhere.
To be considered a refugee by the UN, the person must have left their home country and not be able to return. This distinction, between those outside their country and those still inside—even if being actively persecuted—is vital in understanding how the international refugee system works. In short, people who have not left their country cannot be considered refugees, only Internally Displaced Persons. Rami and Salma left their homes, left their families for Lebanon—that’s why they obtained refugee status.
Canada’s resettlement of Vietnamese refugees was what inspired Kathleen McKinnon to help new Syrian arrivals. A former B.C. Teachers’ Federation employee and long-time social advocate, MacKinnon is a member of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association and chair of its Refugee Sponsorship Committee.
“We had a big community meeting,” MacKinnon explains. “We called it, ‘Syria 101’, to help our members learn more about the situation. Over 100 people came out. We discussed it, and decided that Syrians were a group that we could help.”
Difference in attitude
Of course, much has changed in the 36 years since Canada opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees. Global sentiment has hardened against refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority countries.
The threat of ISIS-inspired attacks, like those in Paris and Brussels, has led to a situation where Syrians are seen by some as potential security threats.
Despite Prime Minister Trudeau's repeated assurances that all potential refugees would be thoroughly screened, it was not sufficient to satisfy critics.
The issue of security didn’t dissuade the neighbourhood association, according to MacKinnon. The few voices of opposition, she explains, felt it was not the group’s mandate. “But the vast majority were very supportive,” MacKinnon says, “and excited.”
Last October, the neighbourhood association began the process for private sponsorship of a Syrian family. To streamline the application, they partnered with the United Church of Canada, since the church is already a sponsorship holder with the federal government. “We raised all the funds ourselves,” MacKinnon says. “In fact, when we put out the call for donations, we were hoping for $27,000 in a month—but we finished with $35,000.”
In addition to the money, the group canvassed their members for accommodation options. It was critical that the Syrian family be housed in the neighbourhood, MacKinnon explains, so that the whole False Creek South community could get involved. They found someone subletting their cooperative housing unit, and the Refugee Sponsorship Committee met with the building managers to propose renting the sublet for a refugee family. On April 26, Rami, Salma and Lilyan moved into the apartment: their new home in Vancouver.
The fact that the family is living in co-op housing, just across from Granville Island, is due to the neighbourhood association’s networking. Without the help of their private sponsor, the family would likely be competing for market housing.
Vancouver’s sky-high rents and ultralow (0.6 per cent) vacancy rate present the biggest challenge to refugee resettlement, according to Caroline Dailly, Manager of Settlement Services at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. “Housing is really the No. 1 issue, and it’s getting worse and worse,” she says. “All people in Vancouver, newcomers or not, know that.”
According to Dailly, 95 per cent of refugees head to Surrey and Langley, searching for affordable housing. “But even there it’s expensive,” Dailly says. “And very competitive. Even if we find a place that people could potentially afford, there are 15 or 20 other people who want it.” Barriers to settlement
Two weeks later, as we arrive at the top of the stairs, Salma is standing in the open door. Lilyan jumps and squeals as she recognizes us.
Salma apologizes for Rami’s absence today.
He was offered a job at the marina, just a tenminute walk away: full-time work for three months. The marina manager had heard that a Syrian family moved in, she says, and he offered Rami a job doing maintenance. It’s good news, Salma says. Then she looks down.
“Because Rami got this job, I cannot go to my English classes,” she says. “Lilyan cannot go to the childcare, she is too young. And Rami cannot stay with her, because of the job.”
I ask if she’s upset. “Yes, but, maybe when Lilyan turns three, it will be possible," she says.
It’s a no-win situation: having to choose between taking a job, which will earn money and help build work history, and taking English classes, which are critical for future success.
The lack of childcare space is a definite barrier to settlement, according to Dailly.
Even if Lilyan was eligible for childcare, Dailly notes, there might not be space available. “A lot of Syrians came with children between the ages of two and five,” Dailly explains. “So if there is no childcare, they can’t take the class.”
Complicating matters further, Dailly says, is that there are not enough English classes for all the newly arrived refugees—a frustrating situation for both refugees and settlement workers. “The idea behind the one-year income support is that refugees have time to settle, to learn English, so they can look for employment,” she says.
“But if it takes seven to nine months before they get into the English classes, then it doesn’t leave much time to learn English before they have to sustain themselves.”
A big part of resettling refugees is helping them navigate the job market. Thanks to the neigbourhood association’s connections, Rami was twice offered employment. First, part-time maintenance work at the housing coop, and then the full-time marina job.
The employment connections the association has fostered is helping Rami build skills and establish a resume, MacKinnon says. “Once Rami is working, he will find it easier to get other jobs."
After an hour of conversation, Salma decides it’s time to take Lilyan to the nearby water park. We walk along the path under the trees—once Lilyan knows where we are going, she races ahead. Salma tries in vain to roll up Lilyan’s sleeves, to keep her dry, but like a child to water she is right in there, soon soaking wet.
After ten minutes, we leave Salma, MacKinnon, and Lilyan and walk to the marina. It’s a sunny afternoon, and people are jogging, biking and rolling along the seaside path between Granville Island and Science World.
It’s a picture-perfect, blue-sky day in Vancouver, boats on the water, shimmering skyscrapers, North Shore mountains. At the Spruce Harbour marina, we meet Rami’s boss; manager Michael Reinhardt.
“It’s a classic summer job,” he explains: power washing the docks, cleaning the boats, doing general maintenance.
Reinhardt is happy to help new arrivals, he says. “The earlier they get employment, the better,” Reinhardt explains, as work experience teaches them about the Canadian job market, and how to adapt. started,” Reinhardt says. “I told him: this is Canada, you need to think about safety, and I gave him gloves and goggles.”
Reinhardt had lived in the Middle East, including time in Syria, he says. His family has met Salma and Lilyan, connecting them to more people in the neighbourhood.
I ask if he sees Rami succeeding. “The work, for sure—he’s a great employee, any boss would be happy,” he says. “But he and Salma are really missing their family back home.”
Then he leans closer. “Once, Rami told me they were thinking about going back,” he confides. “I told him, ‘This new life, it isn’t only for you, it’s for your children. For Lilyan, and the new baby.”
The long road to resettlement
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Rami and Salma recognize how fortunate they are to have a private sponsor assist them.
“There were two other Syrian families onboard the flight to Vancouver,” Salma tells me at our final meeting. “We still keep in touch, and when we visit them, we realize how much support the neighbourhood association gives us.”
One of the families is still living in a hotel room, Salma explains. Not surprisingly, they are struggling to adjust.
“We have so much to be thankful for,” Salma says, as she watches Lilyan play by the couch. “Making a new life in Canada may be hard for us, but Lilyan is doing very well.”