U.S. guide lays out cultural challenges faced by Syrian refugees

Resettlement agencies in B.C. are turning to a U.S. State Department backgrounder to help them understand the cultural challenges Syrian refugees might face coming to North America.

U.S. State Department backgrounder handed out by B.C. agencies

Syrian refugees look at the camera near temporary shelters at a refugee camp damaged by a winter storm in north Lebanon, on January 7, 2015. (Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP/Getty Images)

Resettlement agencies in B.C. are turning to a U.S. State Department backgrounder to help them understand the cultural challenges Syrian refugees might face coming to North America.

The agencies say a Canadian guide to help the agencies is expected to be ready soon, but in the meantime, support workers are sharing copies of the U.S. backgrounder with staff.

The primer, Refugees from Syria,  which was produced by the Cultural Orientation Resource Centre in Washington, D.C., gives advice on how to help people coming from war-torn Syria.

"There was such a demand for information that we decided to hand this out," said Chris Friesen of Immigrant Services Society (ISS) of B.C., who hopes an updated version from Immigration and Citizenship is produced before the influx of Syrians begins arriving in December.

The 15-page document provides extensive details about the political, social and cultural context the refugees will be leaving behind, and how that might be differ from life in the U.S.

The November 2014 document goes over everything from Syrian communication style to dress and restaurant etiquette, in the effort to help Americans understand how to better help their new residents.

"Syrians exchange more niceties in conversations than may be common in resettlement countries. It is an everyday courtesy to inquire about another's health, even when people are not acquainted," the document says.

Political views will vary, don't probe

The backgrounder, which was developed by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, draws on a wide range of international experts and publications for information.

It goes into detail about Syrian political beliefs.

"The political views that resettled Syrians bring with them may spark intense discussion and friction among some," the document says on page 13.

"All will agree that the fighting has devastated Syria and come at an unacceptable cost to ordinary people," reads a section called, Syrian Refugees' Views of the Situation Back Home, which adds that some will be "pro" others "anti- [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad.

They may stand closer to one another when they talk, speak in louder voices, and use more gestures,"- Refugees from Syria backgrounder from Cultural Orientation Resource Center

"Syrians may feel that however bad life was under Assad, things are worse now. Those working with Syrians should respect people's views and not probe or share them with others," the document adds.

'Syrian parents often do not provide the same level of adult supervision for children that is the norm (and in some cases the law) in many Western countries today' says the CORC. (CBC)

Some of the other ways Syrians may have trouble adjusting include:

Parenting: Syrian parents may not provide supervision considered normal and legal in North America, and often discipline children physically.
Affection: In Syria it is considered completely normal for someone to walk up to a stranger's child, pick the child up and kiss the child or offer candy.
Communication: Syrians may communicate in a more intense way; normal conversation may seem like arguments.
Health care practices: Medical treatment may need to be culturally sensitive, including the provision of hospital food that follows Islamic dietary laws.
Smoking: In Syria smoking is common, including indoors.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.