Life in Hamilton on pause due to COVID-19 for 'worried' family fleeing war in Syria

A family of Syrian refugees made it into Canada right before the country went on lockdown due to COVID-19.

Newcomers face 'double isolation' with language barrier says local immigrant agency

Abdullah Alkhalaf (centre) and his family in their new home in Hamilton. (Supplied by Abdullah Alkhalaf)

For more than three years, Abdullah Alkhalaf and his family waited for resettlement in a Turkish refugee camp — had they waited just one week longer, they likely wouldn't have made it to Hamilton anytime soon. 

About six days after Alkhalaf, his wife and their seven children landed in Canada, the government closed the country's borders and paused all refugee resettlement processes over growing concerns of the global pandemic sparked by COVID-19.  

"We are worried," Alkhalaf said, through an interpreter. He and his family fled war-torn Syria in 2017 and applied for resettlement in Turkey.

He's not sure how long now it might take him to find work in Hamilton and get his kids into school. But, he added, the family is grateful to be in Canada where they have a warm house, with a stove and fridge.

On March 11, when the Hamilton region saw its first COVID-19 case, the Alkhalafs arrived in Mississauga where they stayed in a hotel. 

Six days later, as the province went on lock-down — closing schools and all non-essential businesses — the family moved into a home on the Hamilton Mountain. 
The Alkhalafs preparing to leave Turkey for Canada in March. (Supplied by Abdullah Alkhalaf)

Local newcomer agency, Immigrant Working Centre, has been helping the Alkhalafs settle in, along with some of their relatives who live in the city.

"Everything is okay. Everyone is welcoming us and helping us, starting from when we arrived at the airport," said Alkhalaf. 

In their home, they have mattresses lying on the floor and a TV, but no other furniture. Supplies such as food and clothes have been delivered to them by their family and community members. 

"Imagine you don't have the language and you are in a new country with a situation like this," said Bothaina Mohamed, a settlement counsellor at Immigrant Working Centre. 

'They're basically staying home'

"It is new for them, (but) it's new for us too," Mohamed said. "They understand this is something that has to be done, (that) they have to be inside.

"With regard to adjusting to the new country, they're not really getting out to adjust, they're basically staying home." 

While the Alkhalafs made it just in time, many others didn't. 

Each year, hundreds of refugees are destined for Hamilton. The city welcomed more than 1,500 refugees in 2016, according to a recent report from the Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council. 

This year, the Canadian government planned to take in 49,700 refugees and protected persons. Yet with border closures and overseas resettlement processes suspended, it's unclear whether that target will be met. 

An emailed statement from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Thursday said the department intends to uphold their commitments and will continue to accept resettlement requests and asylum claims. 

"(Immigration) will continue to be critical to Canada's success as we work to recover from the economic head-winds we are facing due to COVID-19," part of the statement reads. 

For those who managed to make it into the country before measures to contain the virus intensified, they're having to adjust to new territory without stepping past their front door. Meanwhile, settlement services, which are considered non-essential in Ontario, are trying to welcome newcomers in the most unwelcoming of times. Language barriers, job loss and a lack of secure housing have made the transition more difficult. 

The city of Hamilton said Friday it's relying on local agencies to provide support and it is working alongside the Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council to identify needs of newcomers in the region. 

Some of Mohamed's other clients, who were employed as cab or Uber drivers, have lost their jobs and don't know what to do. 

Mohamed's colleague, Jane Sumwiza said she's encountered job loss with clients too, but has also found it hard to find housing. 

One of the families she supports is going through an especially difficult time as there are 13 of them, including 11 children, confined to a three-bedroom apartment. The kids range in age from 20 years to 10 months and one is in a wheelchair. 

"They want to go outside and play and I'm very worried about if anything breaks out (in) the whole family of 13 people," Sumwiza said, saying despite her efforts to find them a larger home, nothing is currently available. 

For the most part, Mohamed and Sumwiza say they've been guiding people through the employment insurance process as many, who just started jobs, have been let go and aren't aware of federal benefits or how to access them. 

'Double isolation' with language barrier 

Wesley Urban Ministries, which also welcomes newcomers to the city, has said its staff are definitely doing more work than usual to support people during all the uncertainty. 

Wesley executive director Don Seymour said staff are finding it challenging to house people who arrived in March because they can't go out to view homes or apartments.

Each year, Hamilton takes in hundreds of refugees but with COVID-19 it's unclear when newcomers will be able to settle into the city again. (Bobby Hristova/CBC News)

Additionally, their English language services have stopped and they haven't been able to enrol children in school. Many families also don't have the technology to access online resources for learning or other supports. 

"Adapting to Canada and becoming settled and comfortable is going to take that much longer because of that (delay in learning English)," Seymour said. "For people that are new to Canada that maybe do not have the same level of family connections others have, they're kind of in a double isolation because you've got the language barrier as well." 

The city of Hamilton has translated all virtual press conferences into Arabic and Spanish to accommodate non-English speaking residents, along with providing community outreach with Hamilton police community staff to share COVID-19 information in different languages. 

In April, Wesley was expecting to receive 55 people from outside Canada, but Seymour says those have all been cancelled now. 

"It just delays something that they've been looking forward to, that they've been preparing for and so now they're still waiting," he said, adding that the virus adds a whole other layer of uncertainty, especially in refugee camps.

"It's like anywhere else where you're dealing with a lot of people in a close area that might be fragile... it's going to be tough, so I'm sure there's a lot of stress and a lot of hope that this will end soon." 


Jennifer La Grassa


Jennifer La Grassa is a reporter/editor for CBC Windsor. Email: jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca