A year in Calgary: 3 dramatically different refugee stories for 3 different families

CBC News reconnects with three refugee families we first met a year ago. One woman is thriving in her new home, another family is struggling to even get out of the house, and the third family has left town.

CBC News reconnects with three families we first met one year ago

Zainab Al Qaisi, 34, who arrived from Iraq on Nov. 23, 2015, shows off the henna tattoo an Indian friend drew. Al Qaisi says meeting people from other countries is part of her plan to integrate into Canadian life. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

CBC News reconnects with three refugee families we first met a year ago. One woman is thriving in her new home, another family is struggling to even get out of the house, and the third family has left town.

Zainab Al Qaisi remembers the first time a Canadian man touched her.

It was a salsa dance class, and because it's Canada, the man was actually from Cuba. Her new Latin American friends had taken her dancing.

"In my home country, it's a strange thing when you touch another man."

She takes a deep breath and continues: "But it's OK. I know what he think. He is nice man. He is just dancing."

This is all part of Al Qaisi's personal strategy to integrate into Calgary life. She got off the plane here one year ago today, after having spent two years living as a refugee in Lebanon. She's from Baghdad, Iraq.

First: Learn English: She's been studying full time through the Calgary Immigrant Educational Society since she arrived. And second: Meet people from other countries.

"I try not to be just in the Arab community. I have Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador friends," she says during a break in her language classes in northeast Calgary.

So far, so good

Her plan is working so far.

Al Qaisi is one of the more successful refugees. She's well on the road to fluency in English, has made friends, and has applied for jobs.

But for others, the scars of war have left them unable to integrate.

Rasool Al-Jabani lost his legs and two fingers in a car bomb accident in Baghdad. He says he can only wear the prosthetic legs he received in Calgary for an hour at a time, because of the pain they cause. He believes part of the bone in his left leg is broken and hopes that surgery will alleviate the pain. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Just getting by

Rasool Al-Janabi is sitting on the couch of his northeast Calgary house, just as he was when we first met a year ago.

Al-Janabi lost both his legs and two fingers in a car bombing in his home city of Baghdad.

He keeps a set of prosthetic legs, with the pants dangling by the plastic feet, in the front closet. But he can only wear them about an hour a day.

"They hurt him too much," says his cousin Nawal Alwan, who arrived in Canada six years ago. She spends much of her day at this three-bedroom bungalow, helping.

Nawal speaks English but her cousin doesn't. Rasool took 20 lessons and stopped. When asked why, he just shakes his head.

His wife, Suhad Al-Ali, who answers the door and hands out bottles of water from Costco, speaks a few more words.

Al-Ali is keen to learn English, but finds that her commitments at home — four children and a disabled husband who needs help with every task — don't give her room to leave the house much.

And she doesn't drive.

Big dreams but no work

Zainab Al Qaisi had hoped she'd have a job by now.

She was a teacher back home in Iraq, but set her bar lower here.

"I try Tim Horton's, Canadian Tire and Winners, downtown and in northeast," but no bites yet.

She seems like a woman on a mission, determined not to let these hurdles bring her down.

Al Qaisi says her first three months in Canada were troubling ones, where she spent hours alone in her room, asking, "What have I done?"

She emerged from that funk — power-walks with her hoodie up and earbuds in helped — and now she wants to stay positive.

She has decided to continue with her intensive language classes, hopefully transitioning to Bow Valley College.

She came to Calgary with her sister, nephew and niece, and they all share a townhouse in Rundle.

The one year of funding that refugees get from Ottawa has run out and now she relies on welfare.

"Not for always. Just for now," she says, repeating words that seem like a mantra for her.

Rasool Al-Janabi, 38 on the couch of his N.E. Calgary home he shares with his wife (who declined to be photographed) and kids, from left to right - Mohammed, Tabarek, Yasmeen and Ghezel. (Judy Aldous / CBC)

Barely enough to get by

Rasool Al-Janabi and his wife, Suhad Al-Ali, have no expectations of finding work in the near term.

Their cousin translates for them: "They can't work. They can't because you see him, without two legs, fingers. She have to help him. She can't work in Canada." 

This isn't what they expected. They thought they'd get some help in the house to free her up.   

"But the government no pay for that."

They have applied for subsidised housing because the money they now receive from the government — about $3,100 a month — is gone before the end of each month, something that frustrates them.

Al-Jabani had hoped the prosthetic legs, along with a set of crutches, would free him from the house.

Instead he finds them painful to wear and only lasts an hour at time. He's pinning his hopes on another surgery to correct whatever is causing pain in his left leg.

Was coming here a mistake?

Given the challenges, do they regret the move?

They look stunned by the question at first.

Cousin Nawal even laughs a bit, no doubt thinking about the state of fear and chaos they escaped, and then answers without even translating the question.

"No, no, no. They happy here where it's safe and the children can go to school."

Headed east

The third family we met one year ago has relocated to Quebec in search of work.

Claude and Mayssa Alromhien, with their then two-year-old son, came to Calgary after the hair salon they owned in Syria was destroyed by a bomb.

They spoke a bit of French, and felt work prospects would be better out east.

Claude, three-year-old Alexandre and Mayssa Alromhien seen here soon after they arrived in Calgary from Syria. They have since relocated to Quebec in search of work as hair stylists. (Judy Aldous)

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.