Syrian refugees, five years later

·5 min read

WATERLOO REGION — This month marks five years since the first wave of Syrian refugees were welcomed here and across Canada.

Saleh Al Qablawi and his family were originally not intended to be part of the 1,920 refugees who came to Kitchener in 2016.

“I first came to Toronto, and I found that it was expensive,” Al Qablawi said. “I got some advice to go to Waterloo Region because it’s cheaper than Toronto.”

The local Arab community, which he connected to at the Kishki Halal Supermarket in Waterloo, helped his family find an apartment.

Working as an Uber driver, Al Qablawi said that these past few years have revealed how difficult it is to teach his children about his culture.

He said there is very little time between his shifts and after kids come home from school, and he is also worried that it would confuse his kids to learn two cultures at the same time.

“I focus on the Canadian culture,” he said. “They will live here.”

Reflecting on the devastation caused by the nine-year-long civil war that forced his family to flee, Al Qablawi said his children “will never live in Syria, so they only know the basic information about my culture.”

Ultimately, Al Qablawi said that he hopes he can stay in Waterloo Region for a long time. “Everything is positive here … people are so friendly, it gives me a good vision to stay here.”

However, some researchers suggest that newly arrived refugees are reluctant to share negative experiences with interviewers.

A recent study that examined the role of cultural programming for Syrian refugees who resettled in Waterloo Region from 2016-2019 interviewed 28 refugees who arrived in the region from Syria and Iraq.

While most of them said they felt much more welcomed, free and safe in Canada, some also described navigating “a Canadian context that is underpinned by stubborn cultural prejudices.”

“Newcomers have had to navigate the attitudes of Canadian citizens and media outlets that participate in silencing and othering them,” said the study by Anne Vermeyden and Eid Mohamed, published this year in Refuge: Canada’s journal on refugees.

Siba Al-Khadour, executive director of Levant, a local not-for-profit that supports Syrian refugees, agreed that a lot of difficulties go unsaid, and that five years is not a lot of time for refugees to fully integrate into host cultures.

“Actually, it takes a really long time to feel like you really belong, right? And this is dangerous. This is very dangerous,” Al-Khadour said.

This reality is what drives Al-Khadour’s work; ensuring that Syrian refugees in Waterloo Region feel that they can build community, despite the challenges of the resettlement process.

“Art and culture are our tools to help people feel belonging to the community and fulfil them,” Al-Khadour said.

Levant offers art and social programs, most notably their troupe that teaches and performs Dabke, a traditional Levantine line dance. Al-Khadour said dance, music, theatre, and art all serve as a window into Syrian culture and experiences.

“We know our people and their mentality, how they’re thinking. They came from terrible experiences,” Al-Khadour said.

Mohammad Alqassem and his family fled the war in Syria in 2011 and landed in a refugee camp in Lebanon. They lived there until Dec. 2015, when UN officials told him he was being sponsored to live elsewhere. The only problem: he had to get his family to the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport in less than 48 hours.

Not knowing where he would end up, he later discovered that he had been sponsored by a group from Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and Wanner Mennonite Church in Cambridge.

“First months in Canada were so hard for me,” Alqassem said, “but these people always visited us and always asked me if we need (anything), checking on us every month ... sometimes every week.”

Not wanting to stay at home, Alqassem started working four months after arriving in Canada. He said the last five years have been spent juggling work in a restaurant and as a construction worker.

In their free time, his family visited the Cambridge YMCA, and sometimes one of his sponsors would take him to watch hockey games.

His wife, Zeinab Aljomaa, applied herself to learning English. With hopes of becoming a computer scientist, she enrolled in a program with the YWCA in Cambridge in 2019 which she said helped her “build confidence, make friends, [learn] how to interview for a new job, how to start work, school or anything you want.”

Aljomaa was on the verge of completing her General Education Development course, which certifies the equivalent of high-school-level academic skills, when the pandemic halted her progress earlier this year.

Alqassem’s hard work led to savings with which he hoped to buy a home for his growing family within Waterloo Region, specifically in Galt, Cambridge.

“I have my brothers, my sister-in-law there,” he said. “And all my friends, my sponsor. After five years it reminds me of what it was like back home.”

Unfortunately, he said, the area’s burgeoning real estate market raised home prices out of his range. Instead, he bought a house in Woodstock where he relocated his family just last month.

Aljomaa said she hopes that in Woodstock, she can find something like what the YWCA Cambridge offered to help her accomplish her goals.

Fitsum Areguy’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Email Twitter @fitsumareguy

Fitsum Areguy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record