Former refugees across Canada offer advice to Syrian newcomers
Tips for learning English and surviving the Canadian winter come from experience
The 163 Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada Thursday night face enormous challenges adjusting to their new home, but those who preceded them are stepping up with valuable advice for the newcomers.
For many, the biggest hurdle will be the language barrier, newly settled refugees say.
Rose Kimani, who came from Kenya three years ago and is now an intercultural support worker in Winnipeg, advised Syrians coming to Canada to enrol in English classes and embrace the opportunity to learn the new language.
Talar Sarkis, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada with her husband and his family from Aleppo this month, learned the basics of the language attending an ESL class in Toronto.
"In Syria, all children love learning English," Sarkis said.
For a dictation exercise, she was paired with a newcomer from Beijing named Sophia, and they puzzled over a headline in a local newspaper.
"Hey, Fatty!," read a Dec. 9 Toronto Star headline. "Insatiable squirrels getting chubbier as mild season lingers."
Sarkis and Sophia were baffled, since neither had ever seen a squirrel.
They went back and forth, fumbling over words like "insatiable" and "chubbier". When they finally saw a copy of the paper with the picture of the squirrel, they shared a laugh.
Rasha and Arturo, a couple in Ottawa, recounted how difficult the language barrier was when they arrived in Canada.
Rasha, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada earlier this year, initially landed in Edmonton.
"No English, no one to help me. I felt scared," Rasha said, who eventually resettled in Ottawa.
Arturo, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2005 after his enemies threatened to kill him and his brother, slept on the floor at the airport because he did not know where to go.
An airport worker who overhead him speaking Spanish directed him to a refugee receiving house, where he met Rasha.
"If you want to do it, you will do it," Arturo said about learning a new language.
The Canadian winter can come as a shock, especially if they come from countries where winters are mild.
Ali Abukar, who fled Somalia and lived in Egypt as a refugee before arriving in Canada in 2011, said winter can be tough for refugees, especially if they have to stand outside waiting for a bus.
"I think what also made it very difficult for me was the wind chill," said Abukar, the executive director at Saskatoon Open Door Society, which teaches new Canadians how to dress for the cold.
"They need to come with winter jackets because it's cold up here," said Jeremie Kalimba, an electrical engineering student in Winnipeg who fled from war in Congo and Uganda three years ago.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne handed out winter coats to refugees arriving at Pearson late Thursday as a part of the Canadian government's pledge to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of February, a Toronto-area clothing bank is also offering to help Syrians weather the Canadian winter.
New Circles Community Services has been operating a free clothing service for the past 10 years in a neighbourhood where the majority of residents are newcomers or refugees. They say 8,500 people shop there every year.
"[Syrian refugees] can come here twice a year for the next two years and pick up clothing — spring, summer, fall, winter — to make sure their needs and their families' needs are met," said executive director Alykhan Suleman.
New Circles says it can clothe an adult from head to toe for an entire year for $50.
"To find that jacket or that one piece of clothing that someone needs and they are so thrilled, it makes you feel amazing," says Melanie Lauber, who started volunteering for New Circles four years ago.
"I feel wonderful when I leave here every day."