1 year later, most Syrian refugees dream of being independent Canadians

Most Syrian newcomers are still struggling with English, but learning their way around Hamilton.

Most Syrian newcomers are still struggling with English, but learning their way around Hamilton

Nidal Saloum and Roula Albotros sit at the piano with seven-year-old Pamela (right) and three-year-old Malina. The family has been in Canada a little over a year. Saloum and Albotros are working full time, and Pamela is taking piano lessons. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

​Nidal Saloum and his wife Roula Albotros still get emotional when they describe the hail of bullets that told them they needed to get out of Syria.

There's a lot of commitment. They want to be employed. They're very proud about attending the programs.- Andrea Buttars, Wesley Urban Ministries

They were on their way home from Christmas shopping when they drove up on gunfire. By the time Saloum realized he was trapped in the middle, vehicles were behind him, so he couldn't reverse.

They crouched low. Albotros put their three-year-old daughter on the floor and bent to cover her. Then if a bullet came through the door, it would pierce her side. But it wouldn't hit their daughter.

They stayed hunched, listening to gunfire. If they didn't move, Saloum thought, they'd die. Still hunched behind dashboard, he put the car in drive and accelerated. Fast.

Three Syrian refugee women have started a business called Karam Kitchen. The federal government says about 10 per cent of government assisted refugees had some employment income this year, but most are still learning English. (Alison Witt)

They made it home safe. Soon after, they fled to Jordan. Now three years later, they are Canadians.

It is not expected that all refugees will be able to fully support themselves after just one year in Canada.- Nancy Caron, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Every Syrian family who has arrived in the last year has a story like this. Dec. 21 marked the first anniversary of government-assisted Syrian refugees arriving in Hamilton — more than 1,100 so far. That's not including those privately sponsored, like Saloum and Albotros.

The couple is faring better than most. They have a social circle through Ancaster Village Church, where a group sponsored them. They speak English. As of two weeks ago, they even have full-time jobs. Albotros serves coffee at a local car dealership. Saloum works in sales, same as he did in Syria.

About 10 per cent of government assisted Syrian refugees earned some employment income the first year, said Nancy Caron, spokesperson with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. For privately sponsored refugees, it's about 50 per cent.

From left: Pamela, Roula Albotros, Malina, Nidal Saloum and Aaron Gerrard. A group from Gerrard's Ancaster Village Church sponsored the family. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"It is not expected that all refugees will be able to fully support themselves after just one year in Canada," Caron said.

Full time employment is their next piece to really work on.- Andrea Buttars

"While we have heard stories of Syrian refugees beginning to work, the majority of these refugees arrive with little or no English or French skills. It will take time for them to develop the language skills which will enable them to find jobs."

That's the goal of every Syrian newcomer, said Andrea Buttars, manager of resource development with Wesley Urban Ministries. 

"Full time employment is their next piece to really work on," she said.

Even some without English skills are working. Some are washing dishes and doing other jobs not as reliant on English, Buttars said. A select few have carved out a niche, such as Karam Kitchen, a new catering business started by three Syrian-Canadian women. They do this even though employment income means a corresponding cut to their federal cheques.

The first Syrian refugees arrived in Hamilton on Dec. 21, when dignitaries welcomed the group and the kids received toys. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Most Syrian newcomers are in daily English classes. Some make friendly bets with each other to see who can learn more. "Kids pick it up more quickly than adults sometimes," Buttars said.

This is what we want. We want to have a normal life, working, depending on ourselves, and giving the kids whatever they need.- Roula Albotros

"There's a lot of commitment. They want to be employed. They're very proud about attending the programs."

Year one also involves settling into a home. Many stayed in hotels their first weeks. Some reported being turned down repeatedly by landlords. 

Every Syrian refugee family is housed now, Buttars said. And they'll stay that way after the one-year mark.

That's when the source of income changes for most refugee families. Private sponsorship groups end their financial support. Families transition from federal money to local social assistance — i.e. Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

The city wouldn't say how many refugee families are doing that. It also couldn't provide an apples-to-apples comparison of the income levels. Spokesperson Allison Jones says staff will give city council those numbers in January.

Caron said the amount someone gets through the federal Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) depends on several variables, including the city where that person resides. A single person in Toronto, for example, receives $811 in monthly support. A single person on OW gets $706.

Under RAP, a family of four gets $1,508. The families also get the Canada Child Benefit, as do families on social assistance. The benefit grants up to $6,400 per year for each child under six, and $5,400 for each child between six and 17. The average Syrian refugee family size in Hamilton is five.

Buttars said landlords know the families will see a slight income change, so they won't be in danger of losing housing. Caron said the two rates are designed to be comparable.

"(The federal) amount varies depending on the family size," she said, "and is guided by the prevailing provincial social assistance rates in the province where the refugees reside."

A Syrian refugee family talk about their sponsors and new friends 0:44

The new arrivals mean a lot of new children. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) saw 600 Syrian refugee kids arrive his year, said superintendent Bill Torrens. All dealt with some level of culture shock. 

We always want to bring in parents as partners. In this case, that's maybe even more important.- Bill Torrens, superintendent, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Some, for example, thought a fire alarm was an air raid. Some were startled by the bell to change classes, or a police officer entering the school.

Some had come from refugee camps where they had never attended school, Torrens said. And many have experienced terrible trauma and are referred to local health agencies.

(Chris Seto/CBC)

Syrian-born volunteers help. About 27 new arrivals were educators in Syria, Buttars said. Thirteen attended an eight-week HWDSB/YMCA training course this summer. Most volunteer in local schools now as they work toward their Canadian credentials.

"We always want to bring in parents as partners," Torrens said. "In this case, that's maybe even more important."

As for Saloum and Albotros, they know how fortunate they are to be working already. Albotros is so anxious be a successful Canadian that she's even memorized the blue box rules.

"It's like a dream, actually," she said. "We are so happy. This is what we want. We want to have a normal life, working, depending on ourselves, and giving the kids whatever they need. This is what we had and this is what we want to do now."