Syrian refugees say they're 'grateful' in spite of long wait in Toronto hotels

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Syrian refugees say they're 'grateful' in spite of long wait in Toronto hotels

Despite reports some Syrian refugees want to return to the Middle East over frustration with services offered in Canada, a number of others say they appreciate their new beginning in Toronto.

"We are grateful, we are grateful," Mohamed Alchebly told CBC News through an Arabic interpreter on Monday. 

Alchebly, a lawyer who fled the violence in Aleppo, is staying at a downtown hotel with his family. Three other families are at the same hotel, a temporary home where children play in the hallways and their parents sip coffee and share meals in conference rooms.

"What you heard in the media, complaints against the government, that's untrue. They are personal opinions ... they do not represent us," Alchebly said. "It's been excellent so far. We are comfortable, and we thank the government, the ministry and everybody."

Alchebly's comments follow an interview that aired Monday on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning.

Virginia Johnson, one of two volunteers working at a downtown budget hotel housing 85 refugees, told host Matt Galloway the refugees have been there for weeks and have no idea when they will be able to leave.

Some children are unable to go out to play because they still don't have the proper winter clothes, Zaneb Adri Abu-Rukti, a Syrian mother, told Metro Morning through an Arabic translator. She  added that she and her fellow refugees feel like they're "trapped in a prison."

Some of the government-sponsored refugees say they're not getting much help, and would rather go back to their refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, Johnson said. 

But Alchebly told CBC News he's confident the situation will improve.

"It is temporary and we know it is temporary. Then we will move to a permanent residence."

Alchebly said he and his family have been in the hotel for 15 days. He said they were told by COSTI, one of the immigration services working with the refugees, that they might have to stay for a month.

He did say his family is anxious to get into permanent housing.

"The reason we want to move to a house is so our children can go to school. Our children are not used to staying indoors. They are used to playing outside and going to school. The most important thing now is to have residence and go to school, and learn, and start our lives," he said.

His daughter, 6-year-old Rimas, is learning to read in English and can already count to ten in both of Canada's official languages.

Another father of three told CBC Toronto, "Our problem is we don't want to be a burden on the hotel. That's why we wish our cases are accelerated, so we can leave the hotel and settle down."

Helping government-sponsored refugees

While some newcomers have bonded and formed their own community within hotels, some may lack a connection to the outside world, volunteer Bayan Khatib said. 

Khatib recently joined the Syrian Newcomer Committee, a group of about 200 Syrian-Canadians that's lending support to organizations like COSTI.

"We visited them at the hotels and we saw there was a need for our support," said Khatib. "We have something unique to give, which is a connection to the Syrian community here."

Many originally volunteered to support privately-sponsored refugees, but Khatib said the need to help government-sponsored refugees is much greater.

"The privately-sponsored refugees, they have somebody here. They have a whole group of people ... but the government-sponsored refugees don't have anybody," he said.

"We are inviting these newcomers to nearby community centres and mosques that are holding welcome parties for them," she said.

The committee is helping newcomers fill out rental applications, apply for jobs and offering rides to and from doctors' appointments. They are also putting together a buddy system, where a newcomer family is paired with an established Syrian Canadian family.

"The language is a big deal, and the culture. Also, many of us came here as immigrants or refugees, so we know what it feels like."