British Columbia

After 3 months in limbo, Syrian refugees find home and community

A Syrian refugee family that felt frustrated and isolated after living in limbo for three months has moved into a permanent home in Burnaby, and a local church has stepped up to assist the family financially and emotionally.

Family's story raises questions about adequacy of supports for refugees with disabilities

Fifteen-year-old Mohamed Alsidawe, pictured with his sister Hanadi in their new apartment in Burnaby, was unable to enrol in school while his family lived in temporary housing for three months. (Catherine Rolfsen)

A Syrian refugee family that felt frustrated and isolated after living in limbo for three months has moved into a permanent home in Burnaby, and a local church has stepped up to assist the family financially and emotionally. 

The unusual arrangement raises questions about the adequacy of supports for government-assisted refugees, especially those with special needs. 

Fayzeh Ramadan, a widow, and her five children, aged 15 to 26 including two daughters with disabilities, had been living in a motel unit in east Vancouver since early February. 

On Monday, they moved into a bright 3-bedroom apartment near Lougheed Town Centre, which the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. helped them secure. 

Through an interpreter, Ramadan said her family is "very happy and delighted" to finally have a permanent home. 

"We've finished this house thing, [the] searching. We are very tired, but tomorrow we will be more relaxed, for good," she said, smiling. 

The family had been offered several previous housing options, but turned them down because the bathrooms were too small to bathe the young women, who are partially paralyzed. 

Though she's relieved, Ramadan says it will be a challenge for her family to pay their rent, which is $2,450 per month, on the government assistance they receive. 

Local church offering financial help and friendship

But a local church has decided to help, fundraising to top up the family's income, and helping them transition to life in Canada. 

Members of St. Stephen the Martyr Anglican Church in Burnaby throw the Alsidawe family a welcome party in their new home. (Catherine Rolfsen)

"Even with the government help, I think there are still other things that need to be done," said Pamela Park, one of several parishioners from St. Stephen the Martyr Anglican Church who threw the family a welcome party on Monday night. 

Park said the church will drive the family to medical appointments, as well as offer friendship. 

"I think that sense of belonging is very important to people and if we can just help in that small way that would be great." 

The church, which is located just two blocks from Ramadan's new home, was already planning to privately sponsor a refugee family. 

But they were alerted to Ramadan and her family's needs by Shannon Muir, a North Vancouver woman who is sponsoring another Syrian family. 

"I told them about this family that was already here and could really use some help," Muir explained. 

"We've heard from other government-assisted refugees that [their income] is barely enough to survive, similar to anybody who's trying to live on welfare here." 

Muir said there should be more effort to connect the good intentions of private groups, some of whom are waiting for their sponsored family to arrive, with the needs of government-assisted refugees already in Canada. 

Shannon Muir, wearing glasses, connected a local church with a government-assisted refugee family, including Mohamed Alsidawe, on the left, his sister Hanadi Alsidawe, and their mother, Fayzeh Ramadan. (Catherine Rolfsen)

A call for more funding for refugees with special needs

Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services with ISSofBC — the agency tasked with settling government-assisted refugee families like Ramadan's — says it's unusual but not unheard of for private groups to offer such families financial and social support. 

"It really shines a light on the limitations of the current shelter allowance rates," Friesen said. 

He said this family's story also raises questions about the adequacy of support for government-assisted refugees with disabilities. 

"If we're going to bring in families with complex needs, special needs ... we may need a supplemental allowance to support such families." 

Friesen says that at last count, 67 of the Syrian government-assisted refugees that arrived before March 1 are still living in temporary housing. 

Among them is a family of seven that has been bounced between temporary housing for more than four months. 

Friesen says that more than half of the outstanding cases have secured a place to live and will move in the coming month. 


Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at or @crolfsen

With a file from Sumayah Altokhais and interpretation help from Sami Musleh