Ed. Note: Last week, we began a three-part series exploring one Syrian’s experience immigrating to Canada. Canada’s role in the refugee crisis has become the subject of a national conversation since the photos of three-year old Alan Kurdi emerged, as it was later revealed that his aunt had attempted to bring the family to Canada. This conversation coincides with a federal election campaign entering its final month, and has led to substantial debate over how the country should respond to this crisis.
To help us understand the current state of Canada’s refugee system, I recently interviewed a friend who came from Syria to Canada more than three years ago as a refugee from the worsening government crackdown on its people. He continues to interact with the refugee system today as he attempts to bring the rest of his family to Canada, and has experienced both sheer joy and incredible frustration in his quest to reunite his family. Out of respect for his privacy, we’ve decided to keep his identity secret and refer to him as “X” in this series of articles.
Last week’s post recounted the events that led to the unraveling of Syria in late 2011, and the conditions that forced X to leave his home. This week, we delve into X’s experience in Canada as he attempts to build a new life and navigate our country’s refugee system. Note that this interview has been condensed for brevity.
Be sure to check out ways to help Syrian refugees at the end of this article, and come back next week for the final installment of this interview, where X offers his perspectives on how Canada and its citizens can best respond to the current refugee crisis.
Q: What did you have to do to apply for refugee status in Canada?
I felt good when the government said, “We will protect you,” because [I knew that] Bashar al-Assad could never catch me here.”
A: When I applied to register as a refugee, I was very scared. I didn’t know where I would go; I just needed help – any help. The lady who helped me [at Immigration Canada] told me, “Ok, give me your passport, your Syrian ID, and you’ll never go back to Syria. We will protect you.” I really appreciated that. I felt good when the government said, “We will protect you,” because [I knew that] Bashar al-Assad could never catch me here.
The government gave me the papers, but because I wasn’t pre-approved, they said, “We will review your case, and we will talk to you – in five years. Maybe we’ll call you after one year, maybe three years. We don’t know exactly what time we’ll call you.”
So I still only had a work permit. I wanted to improve my English, I wanted to do something, but I didn’t have anything to do. The government called me one year and nine months after I had applied for refugee status, given up my passport, filled out the application, paid a lawyer $3,500 just to let me apply.
Q: What was it like to wait for your application to be processed?
A: Because my status changed from a work permit to refugee applicant, for the first three months, the government told me, “It’s not allowed for you to do any work.” So how could I [make a living]? The government gave me $460 per month for the first two months, and $620 per month for the second two months, because I didn’t have the work permit anymore.
But I wanted to work; I needed the money. After five months, I received a work permit for five years. And immediately I found a job as a cleaner.
[After several months] I received a call, and they said, “You have an appointment in court for [the Fall of] 2013.” I was very happy, because finally something would happen. I didn’t know whether I was up or down, I was in the middle. Either I would be approved, or I would be going back to Syria. After one year and nine months, I went to the [immigration] judge, and she asked me to explain [my case].
[The immigration judge] asked me, “What did you see?” I said, “I saw 1,400 people die in one hour. And nobody in the world did anything for those people.”
There is something that happened that I think really helped me here in Canada. Just before my court appointment, the government in Syria killed 1,400 people with chemical weapons. The first question the judge asked me was, “Did you see the news in Syria?” I said, “Yes, I saw.” She asked me, “What did you see?” I said, “I saw 1,400 people die in one hour. And nobody in the world did anything for those people.” Everything I said, she was typing.
She told me, “Sorry about that. Did you talk to your family? If I approve you now, what will you do for your family?” I told her “I can’t do anything. I have to work and save money. I hope the government can help me to bring them here, but I can’t do anything.” After two, three hours, she told me, “I will approve you,” and gave me an application to fill out for permanent residency. I did it, and one year and three months later, I got the permanent resident card. So after three years and three months in Canada, I got the PR card.
Q: What were some of the other challenges you faced in your first few months in Canada?
A: Something happened when I was trying to get the money [from the government]. There was one lady [at a government employment centre], she was really very angry at me. I was very scared. I told her, “I’m trying to speak English. The government gave me this paper, and told me to come here. After a couple months, I’ll take the work permit to get a job.”
She was really very angry, [shouting] “Stop! No talking! You only answer if I ask you!” I swear, I saw her two times, and I felt not good for her. I asked her to speak slowly, and she said, “That’s not my problem. Stop!” I didn’t talk or anything. And she told me, “Ok, I refuse you because you can’t speak English.”
She was really very angry! I didn’t do anything to her; I didn’t know her. I told my auntie, she told me, “Come with me. I will talk to her manager. This is Canada, not Syria.” So we talked to her, we talked to her manager, and he said, “Sorry. Can you explain [the situation]?”
Not all the [government] employees are good, not all are bad. But if she had smiled, she would not have made me scared. There would have been some connection between us. So, at least just smile! But she was really very angry.
The manager told me, “Ok, I will accept [your application for money]. I have to accept; I cannot refuse it, because you cannot work [right now]. How did she refuse you?” I told him, “I don’t know. She didn’t give me an answer.” And after everything, he told me, “Ok, here is the paper and you can take it to the bank to get your money. Sorry about that; I will talk to [the employee].”
After a couple months, there was a meeting in this building, and she was doing the presentation. And when I said hi, she told me, “I remember you. You put in a complaint about me. And my manager changed the office where I worked.”
I told her, “Yes, because you were very angry. And I didn’t ask you anything bad. I asked you whether the government can give me this paper.” And she said, “Ok, I’m here to help you.”
Now she’s here to help me, after I talked to the manager.
Q: Now that you’ve been in Canada for a few years, are there any other obstacles to moving on with your life?
A: I have been living in Canada until this time for [more than] three years. The government deleted everything for my citizenship application, and I had to begin almost all over again. There is a law in Canada, until you get your permanent residency, the government will only count half of your days [towards your citizenship residency requirement]. So for me, I have been in Canada for more than three years, but the government should only count one year and a half towards my citizenship.
But after checking it last month, I only had around 90 days towards my citizenship application. I said, “Oh my god, I have been living in this country almost four years!” When I asked someone in Immigration, she said, “Sorry, there are new rules that came in June 2015, and you cannot start calculating your days [towards your citizenship] until the time you get your permanent residency.” So if you are in Canada for 10 years, but you cannot get your permanent residency until after 10 years, those 10 years do not count towards your citizenship.
When I asked why, the Immigration officer told me, “Sorry, it’s not just you, but for all the refugee applicants.” This is what I don’t like about the system.
Q: How do you see your life 5, 10, 20 years from now?
Over a hundred people from Syria have asked me, “How did you come to Canada? How did your help your [family members] come over? Can you talk to an employer [for me]? These people maybe have a son who will grow up, study in university here and speak English well… He will benefit Canada.”
A: I don’t think the situation in Syria will be better. Even if the president in Syria dies, he destroyed everything. I don’t know how many years it will take for Syria to come back from it.
About my life here, I’m sure 100 percent I will still be here, because I will never go back to Syria. Maybe I will visit my friends in America, Dubai, but I will never go back.
My plan was to complete some studies or get a certificate in university, but now my mind is focused on another situation. I want to rent a big house, have my family come from Syria. I will explain everything for them, just to put a plan for them. “You have to go to school, you have to get a job” – something like this. When I do this, I feel a little bit good.
I will try to open a store, maybe study some courses, something like this. Over a hundred people from Syria have asked me, “How did you come to Canada? How did you help your [family members] come over? Can you talk to an employer [for me]?”
These people maybe have a son who will grow up, study in university here, and speak English well after five years. After that, he will find some job in some company and pay the tax. He will benefit Canada.
In January 2015, the Government of Canada pledged to bring in 11,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, and has since planned to bring in another 10,000 refugees. However, to this day, only 2,400 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada. While the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Party are calling for Canada to bring in more Syrian refugees in a shorter timeframe, there has been little discussion about how to address the numerous other challenges that refugees face once they come to Canada.
In Part III of this series, we will share X’s reflections on his experience in Canada, including suggestions for improving the refugee system, and how this country can best help the Syrian people through this crisis.
In the meantime, if you are looking to help, there are several organizations working on the ground and here in Canada to address this crisis in some way:
- Large international organizations include the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
- A list of other organizations seeking to provide help to refugees in the Middle East and Europe can be found here
- In Canada, the organization Lifeline Syria is pooling resources to sponsor Syrian refugees to come to this country.
- Please feel free to share the names of other organizations in the comments.
- Finally, please consider sharing this testimony through your networks. It’s our hope that sharing one refugee’s personal account may contribute to correcting common misconceptions and sparking discussion on how we can do more to help others seeking safety.