When Maher Azem went to meet government-assisted Syrian refugees at a hotel in Toronto's west end, he expected to be helping out with translation or transportation.
He certainly didn't expect that it would become his job to find them housing.
But today, Azem is spending almost every spare hour he has helping find housing for dozens of government-assisted refugee families. He heads up a volunteer housing committee for the newly formed Syrian Canadian Foundation.
It's a frustrating task made harder by the fact that the families are often large and landlords aren't always too keen on housing people with no credit history.
"It's been hectic," he said. "There's been a learning curve."
Finding affordable housing
Despite all the ins and outs of the work, there's been an impact. The same week that CBC's Metro Morning reported that Syrian families are helplessly stuck at hotels, Azem placed 28 families in more permanent homes.
The next week, 11 families were shown apartments in Etobicoke, with seven signing leases.
"It's pretty exciting and motivating us to do even more," said Azem.
The process of placing Syrian newcomers into homes is all about contact. Azem is calling landlords and building owners "constantly" to look for vacancies. But his search is not exactly city-wide.
"We check availability in Mississauga, Scarborough, Etobicoke — that's within the budget. We are limited by the government aid they are getting," he said.
Sometimes Azem said the refugees will look even farther afield, to places like Hamilton and Burlington. They must look at two-bedroom apartments in the $1,200/month range, which is not easy in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
"It's pretty shocking, really," he said.
Azem said most Syrians are also surprised at the cost of living in Canada, and how little the government funding gets them. Some Syrians have told him they cannot live in the places he finds because they are too cramped.
Confounding that issue is the need for accessibility — apartments must be close to grocery stores and schools, as many arrivals won't have transportation.
He said the problem is also grouping Syrians together, since many of them can't speak English and must rely on each other for the time being. He called it a challenging process.
Azem knows the struggle many Syrians might face in a new city. He was once a newcomer to Toronto as well. He came to Canada from Syria in his early 20s. He has since become well-known in the Syrian-Canadian community, becoming a board member of Lifeline Syria as well as a co-founder of the Syrian Film Festival.
His full-time work is as an IT specialist and network architect working for Shaw Communications.
Azem is one of many volunteers working to get the newcomers settled. He works closely with a volunteer real estate agent, Qaiser Naqvi.
Naqvi is helping Syrians with renting, so there is no commission. But even that's complicated, since Naqvi doesn't speak Arabic and always needs a translator.
Phases of resettlement
While he's settling as many families as he can every week, more keep coming, outpacing the number of families finding homes. As many as 60 families arrived the same week his group placed 28.
"We need more aid from the community. It's really a challenge. The community has to step in more," he said.
And more challenges lie ahead. This includes setting up an Internet connection, getting drapes, furniture, finding hardware stores — everything someone might need to be self-sufficient in Toronto.
"After this, there is the second phase of resettlement," he said.
The newly formed organization, Syrian Canadian Foundation, can be reached here: email@example.com.