Nova Ghadri, a 39-year-old Syrian refugee, remembers well how she and her children were greeted with open arms when she crossed the border into Canada following a flight to Buffalo, N.Y.

She recalls the Canadian immigration officer saying, "Welcome to Canada, this is your new home. Enjoy your new life here," to her children.

Still, for Ghadri, who had a professional career in communications in the United Arab Emirates until just a few years ago, it was, and remains, difficult to come to terms with the idea that she is now a refugee.

After a complicated process of hearings and applications, Ghadri was finally granted protected person status on Aug. 11.  

She now has a driver's licence and a place to live, and has enrolled her children in school.

In her new community, Oakville, Ont., neighbours did everything possible to help her feel at home. They gave her "advice on where to go and what to do," and also helped her with such simple things as moving in.

At this point, Ghadri's biggest challenge is that her husband, who is still back in the UAE, will not be allowed to join them until May 2016 at the earliest because of the long process of applying for protected person status and sponsorship.

"And there might be zero chance for my husband to obtain a visitor visa to Canada so he can be with us while his sponsorship papers are being done," she said.

"On a personal level, without my husband here it's the most difficult thing. You can adapt and be happy, but there will always be something missing."

Ghadri is one of just over 1,000 Syrian refugees who have been admitted into Canada, as of Dec. 29, since Syria's civil war erupted in the spring of 2011, and aid groups and the UN have been urging Canada to take up to 10 times that number.

According to Alexandra Kotyk, the sponsorship director at the church-based Anglican United Refugee Alliance, the biggest challenge faced by refugees is that their expectations are not being met.

"They think because they are coming here they are going to be safe, but they also assume they will have enough money to eat and to have a nice apartment," says Kotyk.

"But, quite frankly, it's basic social assistance support, so they really don't get that level of support that they want. And that's depressing for them."

On the move

Ghadri, however, is not currently receiving assistance from the government. She is living off the money she saved while working in the UAE, in addition to what her husband sends regularly.

Returning to Syria was not an option because one of her brothers, who currently lives in Turkey, had been detained by the Assad regime, and her sister was a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the official opposition.

She and her husband were making a life together in the UAE. But, wary of the spreading unrest in the Arab world, the UAE began to crack down on foreign nationals and many Syrians lost their jobs and residence permits.

Syria refugee crisis map

The UN estimates that at least 3.3 million Syrians have been displaced by the fighting. Most of them are still in the region, often in overcrowded refugee camps. (Reuters)

Canada seemed like a good bet as another of her brothers has lived here for eight years. But like many Syrians she was unable even to get a visitors visa.

For many Syrians, hers is a familiar plight.

Eiad Herera, a 31-year-old Christian from Damascus, arrived in Montreal with his wife and family last June.

He, too, left Syria a few years before the uprising because there were no opportunities for education or to build a career.

After living in Dubai for a few years and working as a sales coordinator at a home decor company, he and several other Syrians were laid off.

He then worked with family members already in Montreal to get private sponsorship to Canada through a church.

The church continues to help his family. It aided them to find an apartment and enroll in classes, and supports them financially (as do all private sponsors in the first year of resettlement).

"The church has done more than its humanitarian duty," Herera says. "It's helped us in every way possible."

Herera himself did not find much difficulty in adapting to a new country and environment because of his Dubai experience.

But other family members "had a hard time at first," though now all are busy with mandatory French classes and "small day-to-day jobs here and there."

Canada, he says, is "not like our countries. The country here helps everyone — immigrants, refugees and citizens alike."

'Lotto ticket'

Zaher Suleiman, a 37 year old from the suburbs of Damascus, arrived in Toronto at the end of 2011.

He had fled Syria because of his involvement in the uprising of March 2011, when he had helped organize peaceful protests.

Suleiman had been a public school teacher. When he first arrived in Toronto, he came on a visitors visa obtained before the uprising. He calls it his "golden lotto ticket."

Zaher Suleiman

Zaher Suleiman had been a public school teacher in Syria prior to the uprising and civil war. He now works in a restaurant in Toronto and is waiting for his wife and children to be allowed to join him. (Courtesy Zaher Suleiman)

He was able to use it when things became too dangerous for him as an activist, and arrived on a "very cold December night" — his first Canadian winter.

He landed in Toronto with no real winter clothes and no idea where he was going.

"When the cab asked me where I wanted to go, I said 'I don't know,'" recalls Suleiman.

The driver took him to "an affordable hotel" where he spent three nights until he moved to a small room in North York.

Unlike Montreal, Toronto does not have a large Syrian community to greet new arrivals and guide them on the basics like "where to buy bread and shop," so he had to navigate on his own.

Filling the gaps

Today Suleiman works in a restaurant as a line cook. His wife and three children are currently in Egypt, because he never thought he would become a refugee and thought he was only leaving Syria briefly.

But when he realized the situation in Syria was going from bad to worse, he decided to apply for asylum, which he obtained in September. His struggle over the past two years has been to find a way to bring his family here.

"I wouldn't say I've adapted to life in Canada," he says, "I'd say I've gotten used to life here. But until my family is by my side, I cannot fully adapt."

He appreciates the Canadians who have helped him settle, but is angry at a government that has not been able to reunite him with his family who live in "difficult conditions" in Egypt.

At a time when the Syrian struggle is becoming more complex and more and more people are forced to flee, Canada's Syrian community is trying to fill the gaps of aid by helping new arrivals adapt.

It is also lobbying for increasing the number of refugees being allowed into Canada and for reuniting separated families, both of which seem to be going very slowly.

According to Faisal Al Azem, the director of the Montreal chapter of the Syrian Canadian council, Syrians in Canada have been disappointed with Canada's slow reaction in reuniting families separated by the conflict.


A Syrian woman washes dishes outside tents at the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, on Dec. 28, 2014. (Hosam Katan /Reuters)

"Syrian-Canadians were surprised by the quick response" of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in November 2013 following the tragic typhoon in the Philippines, Azem says.

"The minister declared that visas of Filipinos that were affected by the typhoon would be expedited to Canada.

"As a consequence, more than 1,500 Filipinos were able to reunite with their families in Canada following the typhoon," says Azem.

"Syrian-Canadians ask themselves, what is different about them compared to Filipinos, or Haitians or Hungarians, all of which have found refuge and protection in Canada."

Nousha Kabawat is in charge of youth involvement at the Syrian Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Toronto and is the founder of Project Amal ou Salam, an initiative that aims to empower the future leaders of Syria through education. She is currently a fellow in Global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs.