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

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.”

Just Posted

An incredible closing ceremony capped off the 2019 Canada Winter Games. (File photo by SUSAN JUDGE/2019 Canada Winter Games)
2019 Canada Winter Games Legacy Fund Society hands out $655,000

35 not-for-profit groups across Alberta to get money

Dr. Verna Yiu, president and chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services, says COVID ICU patients have increased by more than 100 per cent in the past month. (Photo by The Government of Alberta)
Record number of people in ICU: says AHS president

The head of Alberta Health Services says hospital staff are treating more… Continue reading

The Red Deer Rebels have acquired goaltender Connor Ungar from the Brandon Wheat Kings, the team announced Monday. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer Rebels acquire goaltender Connor Ungar, forward Liam Keeler in separate trades

The Red Deer Rebels have acquired goaltender Connor Ungar from the Brandon… Continue reading

Alexander Michael Talbot, 29, was found guilty of operating a vehicle while prohibited, flight from police and vehicle theft in Red Deer provincial court recently. (Advocate file photo)
Man charged following police chases in central Alberta last summer is sentenced

Alexander Michael Talbot sentenced to 22 months in prison

Red Deer musician Curtis Phagoo is glad the Alberta government is investing $2 million to help the province’s live music industry, but he would have liked the criteria to be expanded, so the money could be used as relief to cover revenue shortfalls. (Contributed photo by Cory Michaud)
Red Deer musicians welcome $2M in grants to help live music, but would have preferred relief program

The money is for future projects and can’t be used for retroactive expenses

Marlene Bird is shown in this undated handout provided by radio station CKBI. A Saskatchewan man who brutally attacked a woman and set her on fire has been denied parole. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-CKBI **MANDATORY CREDIT**
Man who attacked, set fire to Indigenous woman in Saskatchewan denied parole

Man who attacked, set fire to Indigenous woman in Saskatchewan denied parole

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police don’t expect gang conflict to subside, say it might escalate

Vancouver police don’t expect gang conflict to subside, say it might escalate

Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister Adrian Dix talk about phase two in B.C.'s COVID-19 immunization plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. residents who had AstraZeneca vaccine can choose second-dose vaccine

B.C. residents who had AstraZeneca vaccine can choose second-dose vaccine

This image released by Forest Lake Camp shows campers boating and kayaking on the lake of the camp in Warrensburg, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Forest Lake Camp via AP
Canada’s summer camps hope to reopen as provinces plan to lift restrictions

Canada’s summer camps hope to reopen as provinces plan to lift restrictions

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals tap another military officer to replace Fortin on vaccine campaign

Liberals tap another military officer to replace Fortin on vaccine campaign

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. The audit, ordered by the Arizona Senate, has the U.S. Department of Justice saying it is concerned about ballot security and potential voter intimidation arising from the unprecedented private recount of the 2020 presidential election results. (AP Photo/Matt York, Pool)
Republican Arizona election official says Trump “unhinged”

Republican Arizona election official says Trump “unhinged”

In this June 29, 2020 file photo, the Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Supreme Court to take up major abortion rights challenge

Supreme Court to take up major abortion rights challenge

FILE - In this May 14, 2021, file photo, signs instruct visitors on the proper way to wear masks at the Universal City Walk in Universal City, Calif. California is keeping its rules for wearing facemasks in place until the state more broadly lifts its pandemic restrictions on June 15. State officials said Monday, May 17 that the delay will give people time to prepare, and for the state to make sure that virus cases stay low. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
California will stay masked for another month

California will stay masked for another month

Most Read