British Columbia·In Depth

Challenges and triumphs: Syrian refugees' 1st year in Canada

A surge of Syrian refugees began arriving in Canada in December 2015. In the year they've spent here, many have found welcoming communities, but also faced hurdles that come with settling in a foreign country when you don't speak the local language or have a job lined up.

Even with war, turmoil and displacement behind them, life for Syrians in Canada hasn't been easy

Shadi al-Radi sits in his living room with his wife Saja Ayyash and their toddler Zain. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Shadi al-Radi works through some English lessons on YouTube. He diligently follows along with the instructor, taking notes and writing out phrases on his note pad. He says he's moved past the "English for Arabs" videos and on to basic English instruction.

Al-Radi, 29, was part of the first wave of Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada after the election of the Liberal government last fall. 

When he arrived, he had no English, no job, no home for his young wife and baby and no plan.

A Syrian refugee walks with her two kids at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan in 2013. Roughly 80,000 people live in the sprawling camp. (Mohammad Hannon/AP)

Before coming to Canada, al-Radi spent three years in Jordan, some of it at the Zaatari refugee camp

"Life was very, very difficult. Three years, I can't do anything," he said. 

Moving to Canada

Al-Radi says he'd barely heard of this country, and certainly hadn't considered moving here, when he suddenly got a phone call.

"I get a strange number on my cell phone," he said. "Somebody on phone speaks Arabic, 'Are you Mr. Shadi al-Radi?' I say 'yeah.' He says directly, very fast, 'Are you interested to move to Canada?'"

Al-Radi was told he would have 15 days to prepare to move, but he had to say yes or no immediately, without consulting his wife or any of his family members in Jordan.

They warned him how far away Canada was and how cold it got, but his main concern was leaving his ailing mother behind.

His wife, Saja Ayyash, 21, says she was afraid, "Because I don't know anything about Canada."

Saja Ayyash makes some coffee in the Coquitlam apartment she shares with husband Shadi al-Radi and daughter Zain. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Still, the decision was made.

"I told [al-Radi] if he would like to go to Canada, I am with him. If he would like to stay in Jordan, I am with him."

Refugee surge

When the family finally made it to Vancouver, they spent their first three weeks at the Sandman Hotel on Davie Street. 

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said with the high numbers of refugee arrivals around that time, that was actually a relatively short hotel stay.

"Finding suitable, permanent accommodation throughout Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley posed challenges," he said.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, says finding permanent housing for the surge of refugees in Metro Vancouver was a challenge. (Doug Trent/CBC )

"In the case of the Syrian operation ... in some cases families, unfortunately, had to stay three or more months in hotels."

Disturbing attack

Around that time, al-Radi experienced his first major shock in Canada — a pepper spray attack outside a welcoming event on Kingsway.

He was in a crowd of Syrians waiting for a bus when an unknown man on a bicycle rode by and sprayed the group.

Al-Radi avoided the worst of it, but people were coughing and crying out all around him.

First responders were called to assist a large group of Syrian refugees who were attacked by a man with pepper spray on Kingsway in January. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Everyone was confused, because why? How come Canadian people don't like us?" he said.

In the immediate aftermath, Friesen was also unsure of exactly what had happened and why the group had been attacked.

"Definitely when you're working in an information vacuum, you don't know if this is orchestrated, you don't know if there's going to be subsequent events or targeting," he said.

But their confusion and despair quickly turned to relief as an outpouring of support grew.

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson took to social media to express their dismay.

Al-Radi says that was a big deal.

"There was Justin Trudeau. He says on TV, 'I'm sorry about what happened.' In fact, everybody was happy about that," he said.

He added that the swift response from first responders and the compassionate treatment from Vancouver police — a stark contrast to Syrian police — left him and the other refugees feeling reassured.

Finding a home

Al-Radi and several other Syrian families found housing at an apartment complex on Cottonwood Avenue in Coquitlam.

But a few months after they settled in, a new challenge — a fire seriously damaged multiple suites and displaced the whole group.

Al-Radi lived in the adjacent building. His brother, who had also made the voyage from Jordan, lived in the burning one.

"There was smoke, fire," he said, adding that everyone was relieved when the residents got out of the building safely, although many lost everything — all the things they'd just bought or been given. 

A number of families were displaced after a fire started at an apartment complex at 550 Cottonwood Ave. in Coquitlam, B.C. (Shane MacKichan)

"It was difficult.... After six months, seven months everyone bought everything he needed. In moment, everything finished," said al-Radi.

Friesen and the ISS sprung back into action, finding temporary housing for the affected families and then getting them settled again with new furniture and belongings.

Finding independence

Al-Radi found a new home in Coquitlam, and as his English improved, he found a job manufacturing kitchen cabinets.

He says with pride that he'll be ready to shift off government assistance as his first year in Canada comes to a close. 

That puts him in the minority, says Friesen.

"For the bulk, the majority of the refugees, as they've come in under humanitarian immigration, they'll need some additional years of support until they can fully stand on their own two feet," he said. 

As of late November, nearly 2,000 government-assisted Syrians had settled in British Columbia, in addition to 424 privately-sponsored refugees and 326 more through blended VISA office referrals.

More than 35,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada.

A group of Syrian boys eagerly work on their pastel masterpieces at a special art session in Richmond in March 2016. The event was put on on to give the children a bit of a break from life in a hotel. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Al-Radi said he initially didn't plan to live permanently in Canada, but he's warming to the idea. His biggest challenge is now finding a career path in his new country, more than three years after putting his academic pursuits on hold.

"I don't want to lose more time," he said. "I have to be looking [out] for my daughter, for my wife, for my future. For me, that's a big challenge for me to select what I have to do," he said. 

And any day now, al-Radi and Ayyash will have another life to look out for: they are expecting a second child — another girl.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker