Private versus public: A tale of 2 refugee families in Winnipeg

Anaam Dekki has a roof over her head and food to eat. She is not in a war zone and her children are safe. But nothing could prepare her for the acute loneliness she's felt from the moment she arrived in Winnipeg as a government-sponsored refugee from Syria.

Experiences differ for Syrian families sponsored to Winnipeg to start a new life among strangers

Anaam Dekka with son Ahmad. She is still getting used to life in Canada. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Anaam Dekki has a roof over her head and food to eat. She is not in a war zone and her children are safe. But nothing could prepare her for the acute loneliness she's felt from the moment she arrived in Winnipeg as a government-sponsored refugee from Syria.

"She said 'I don't want to speak' because she feel, I feel she going to cry," said Fadal Al-Shawwa, a volunteer services counsellor with Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. "Because she feel lonely and she miss her family."

It is a familiar story among the 766 government-sponsored Syrian refugees who have arrived in Winnipeg in the past year — a story that's delicately different from the tales of those who were privately sponsored.

They came with the promise that their basic needs would be met. Agencies like the Interfaith Immigration Council would find permanent housing for them. The federal government would provide income support equivalent to provincial social services for one year.

But they lack long-term social connections and support, and that can mean the difference between thriving or just surviving, refugee advocates said.

"It is a very difficult situation for many of them," said Tarek Habesh, with the Syrian Assembly of Manitoba. "They need someone to help them. They need someone to check on them through their journey here. They want someone to knock on their door to see how they're doing."

Anaam Dekki and her husband Salem Alhewai consider themselves lucky. The young couple survived a harrowing escape from Homs, a five-hour journey through the war zone, before ending up in Winnipeg last January.

Now here, they're seated in a common room at Welcome Place. Their son Yousef, 3, scribbles on a paper with crayons and giggles at the results. Baby Ahmad squirms on his mother's lap. She is pregnant again and they're all in good health.

But any federal responsibility for them beyond the monthly minimal income ended the moment the immigration council found permanent housing for them.

Staff and volunteers at the MIIC did their best to pick up the slack; they taught them how to ride a bus, and they showed them where to buy cheap groceries and cheap clothes. "Giant Tiger and Dollarama," Salem says in Arabic.

A kindly neighbour — "Mike, he is a good person," Salem said — also welcomed them into the fold, even throwing a potluck supper welcome for them on Halloween eve.

"Everyone at Welcome Place, thank you, thank you so much," Salem said through Al-Shawwa. "We are so grateful."

But these supports are by luck and not design; they have no one who can, as the year progresses, routinely help them with their social needs.

They have minimal access to English language classes — they're just part-time due to backlog and excessive demand. They have few Syrian friends. They're still uncertain about how their access to health care works.

Salem Alhewai is anxious to work. The former shoe salesman is restless.

"He is not used to doing nothing," Al-Shawwa explains. 

It is a sentiment shared by Kamal Al Ziab. He, his wife, Fatima Al Hussein, and their six children arrived in Winnipeg one year ago. They too fled their blood-soaked home back in Syria. They too had almost no idea what to expect in their new country.

But they came here courtesy of Refuge Winnipeg, a collective of Winnipeggers from different faiths who banded together to sponsor them.

Refuge Winnipeg, not the federal government, is mandated to cover their expenses for the first year. Refuge Winnipeg found them a home and even furnished it for them. 

But the support of the private sponsors goes beyond addressing their practical needs.

They taught the couple's daughter Aya, then nine, how to build a snowman. They are teaching Kamal how to drive. They help the kids with their homework. 

Shirley Watt (left) and husband Walter watch Omar Al Ziab play sledge hockey. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
They also found the family the medical help they needed. Son Omar was 11 when he lost his leg in a military attack. Within weeks of arriving in Winnipeg, he was outfitted with a prosthetic leg. Today he is one of the best players on a Winnipeg sledge hockey team. 
Omar Al Ziab at one of his Sunday afternoon sledge hockey games. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
And while the sponsors' official responsibility for the family ended this month, the relationship remains. They still take turns giving Omar a ride to sledge hockey. They still help the family get to the mosque when requested.

Kamal Al Ziab and Fatima Al Hussein are grateful for the continuing support. It's why they're determined, they say, to thrive in Winnipeg and pay it forward.

"I want my son to win a medal [in sledge hockey] for Canada," Kamal said in broken English, laughing. "Be proud."