Three years on, many Syrian refugees find stressful path to Canadian citizenship

For Fouzia Al Hashish and thousands of other Syrian refugees, the time has come to put the finishing touches on their new national identity.

The 23-year-old mother’s 2019 goal is already quite clear: a Canadian citizenship and a dark blue passport for herself, husband Mohammad Al Mnajer, and their children.

“I’m not a refugee. I’m a Canadian, same as you,” she said in an interview at her home in Mississauga, Ont.

Al Hashish is among the 25,000 Syrian refugees who came to Canada between December 2015 and March 2016, and who are becoming eligible to apply for citizenship after spending 1,095 days in the country and meeting language requirements.

However, refugee advocates say obstacles remain for many other applicants surviving on welfare, who remain uncertain about how they’ll pay hefty fees or pass the language certifications.

The journey to becoming Canadian is far from easy.

Al Hashish, Al Mnajer and their oldest two daughters arrived in Toronto on Jan. 8, 2016, as temperatures fell to -11 C, carrying a few suitcases containing their belongings.

“I’d heard people say, life is easy here. But when I came, it was difficult. I had no language and no family (here),” she recalled of that first day – four weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted 163 refugees aboard the first flight to arrive at Pearson International Airport.

After they came, the couple’s two oldest girls, Baylasan and Jaidaa, spent three days hospitalized with severe allergies and asthma. A few months later, the father was rushed to the hospital himself with acute appendicitis.

After 500 days, Al Hashish gave birth to the third child, Judy – referred to as “our Canadian baby” – and the infant soon absorbed what little free time she had.

Al Hashish also recalls moments of hostility as she walked along the sidewalk, hearing the word “refugee” hurled at her in a sharp tone by “men who hate Arab people.”

She said she’s longed to move beyond that status, and has been devoting part of each day to studying her English.

This month, she passed the key certification known as “Level 4.”

The minimum language standard has outcomes including an ability to participate in “routine social conversations,” and to discuss basic needs. She also requires a knowledge of a variety of simple grammatical structures, “along with some complex ones.”

Al Mnajer passed his test earlier this year, a feat he links to finding a job with a Canadian construction firm after his first year in the country, helping install swimming pools.

The 32-year-old labourer says each day he learns fresh English from co-workers, while the salary means he’s saved enough for the federal citizenship fees: $1,260 for the two adults and about $100 each for his Syrian-born children.

However, for other Syrians without employment and with only basic experience as labourers in their homeland, the hurdles remain. “They (Syrian friends) didn’t manage to get such opportunities,” Al Mnajer explained.

Immigration lawyer Ronalee Carey said while many privately sponsored refugees have received extensive support and opportunities to practise their new language, this often wasn’t the case among the government-sponsored refugees who didn’t have a francophone or anglophone Canadian network.

“We need more partnerships between community groups and the government so that when these individuals arrive here they don’t just come to a reception house for a few weeks and then 10 hours of settlement support,” she said in an interview.

Meeting the fee costs and language requirements can be almost impossible for some refugees, she said, especially those still suffering from war trauma. The Canadian Council for Refugees has called for the elimination of the fees, and more exceptions for the language requirements.

Lina Arafeh, a Syrian refugee who works as a translator in Halifax, said she had clients who are deeply worried about their struggle to learn the language.

“I have interpreted for one person, he was frantic. He had almost a nervous breakdown. We would go to counselling and all of his answers revolved around, ‘What if I fail my English my exam? All of my friends are passing,’” she said in an interview.

Meanwhile, poverty remains an issue for many families.

For example, in Nova Scotia, where about 1,700 Syrian refugees arrived in the first year, 795 adults and children remain dependent on income assistance as of late September, according to the province’s Department of Community Services.

In Halifax, Ragheb Al Turkmani, 49, and Abir Al Basha, 39, are eager to apply for citizenship, but face the financial challenge of fees that would exceed the monthly income of their family of five.

They came to Canada on Jan. 27, 2016, from Jordan, where Al Turkmani was with his sister when war broke out and his hometown of Homs became a devastated war zone.

Unlike Al Mnajer, he’s been unable to find work, and income assistance is sustaining the family. He’s still trying to reach his Level 4 in English, though expects it is achievable next year.

“When you have a family and children to look after, my study comes afterwards,” he said, speaking through a translator.

Somehow, the family will find a way, adds Al Basha. “We can borrow the money,” she says.

Other Syrian families eagerly anticipate the year to come, having become success stories and employers already.

Tareq Hadad, the co-founder with his father of Peace By Chocolate, a chocolate company based in Antigonish, N.S., says the topic of citizenship is a matter of daily discussion in his family.

There will be a language exemption for his father because he’s over 54.

“My whole family has been waiting daily to apply,” he said. “The day after Boxing Day, I will feel the excitement and just go and do it.”

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