5 years in, Syrian refugees say it's been hard but they are adjusting to Montreal

For the thousands of Syrian refugee families who've settled in Canada since 2015's Operation Syrian Refugees, five years of routine and stability are worth celebrating.

Almost 26,000 newcomers landed in the country in 2015 and 2016 as part of Operation Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees say they are adapting to Montreal, 5 years in

2 years ago
Duration 3:31
Five years after thousands of Syrian refugees came to Canada, CBC caught up with two women from Aleppo to see how they've adapted to life in Montreal.

You can usually find Tamar Zeroghlian at work in a kitchen, making food from her native Syria. Sometimes she's laughing with her coworkers, other times she's at home, cooking for her family.

Six years ago, she was stuck in Lebanon, waiting for her family's asylum applications to go through. Before that, the five of them were in Syria, trying to balance life with war.

Today, she's in a hairnet and apron, preparing meals at Les Filles Fattoush, a Montreal catering company run by refugees that employs 12 women like her. Her husband sells car parts, and two of her kids are in CEGEP.

"We are satisfied," she said, reflecting on the hardships and successes of the past five years in her new home. For Zeroghlian and the thousands of other Syrian refugee families who've settled in Canada, five years of routine and stability are worth celebrating.

Operation Syrian Refugees

Following the Arab Spring a decade ago, Syria plunged into a violent, multi-sided civil war between the forces of its president, Bashar al-Assad, rebel groups and foreign allies.

As the number of people fleeing to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other nations increased, so did international pressure to absorb the growing migrant population. The outcry bubbled over when a photo of drowned Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, exploded across the internet in September 2015.

Later that year, a campaign promise by Justin Trudeau became reality, and between Dec. 1, 2015, and the end of February 2016, Canada settled 25,555 Syrian refugees, according to Statistics Canada.

The federal plan to open the country to those fleeing Syria's growing humanitarian crisis has brought in nearly 73,000 Syrian refugees since then, with many settling in Ontario and Quebec.

Cold weather was just one of the big adjustments for Osanna Jakmajian and her daughter, Agapé, who landed in Canada in December 2015 as part of Operation Syrian Refugees. (Submitted by Osanna Jakmajian)

Rough beginnings

Hadeel Al Boukai remembers her first year in Canada as a hurricane of paperwork and applications — for health cards, elementary schools, rental agreements and French classes.

"I had no feelings at that time," she said over the phone from her home in Laval. "It was fight or flight, you know? I was fighting for my kids, for my apartment, for everything," she said. "Now, I can finally breathe."

Al Boukai, a former English teacher, landed in Montreal in April 2016 with her two daughters, who were four and five at the time. Her husband, who is Egyptian, came later under a work permit.

She now has a job at the National Bank of Canada, and her daughters, who were initially stressed about the move, have friends and feel comfortable. It's a reality that many Syrian newcomers say has taken a hard five years to build.

"I remember that day that we arrived at the airport here in Montreal, she [my daughter] asked me, 'Mom, is this our final country, or should we go to another country?'" said Osanna Jakmajian. She arrived in Montreal in December 2015 with her husband and daughter, then seven, after first fleeing Lebanon via Turkey.

For Jakmajian, integration came easier thanks to a welcoming host family and her sponsor, Hay Doun, an Armenian non-profit. Her parents and siblings also came to Canada around the same time.

"We are not in heaven," she said, "but I have to say I'm lucky."

Tamar Zeroghlian now works at Les Filles Fattoush, a Montreal catering company that employs Syrian refugees. (CBC)

The biggest hurdles

Many newcomers say learning the language is the biggest challenge to feeling comfortable in Canada, and in Quebec, being pulled between English and French can be particularly frustrating.

"If you don't know French, and you just speak in English, sometimes you feel guilty," said Jakmajian. Her lack of fluency made it hard for her to connect with people outside of her community, she added.

According to the 2016 census, 55 per cent of Syrians did not know English or French, compared with 28 per cent of refugees from other countries. That language gap makes it more difficult to find work, navigate resources and integrate into the community.

During her first few months in Montreal, Al Boukai, who spoke English but not French, said she kept getting parking tickets because she couldn't understand the signs, and had to bring her cousin with her to appointments for translation. She said one of her French-language teachers at Cégep de Saint-Laurent made racist comments against her and other Arab students.

"It's always nice to learn something new but when you are obliged to, and maybe you will face some racism because of it, it's a nightmare," she said. She's considering leaving Quebec and moving to Ontario, where most work opportunities don't require French fluency.

For her, the second biggest hurdle was dealing with degrees and certifications that didn't count in Canada, an issue that continues to hold many newcomers back from participating in the workforce.

The Jakmajians fled Aleppo for Turkey in 2012, where they lived for two and a half years before moving again to Lebanon, and finally to Montreal. (Submitted by Osanna Jakmajian)

The next five years

Now that Zeroghlian's family has work, education, a home and citizenship — which they received in 2019 — she said the next five years are for "dreams."

As much as she loves Les Filles Fattoush, she wants to open a silversmithing shop with her husband and reprise the work they used to do back in Syria. She also wants to help her mother, siblings and their families get to Canada.

When asked if she's worried about them back in Syria, she tears up.

"It's hard, it's very hard," she says, "but we're thankful for every moment … here in Canada."