New Brunswick

'They are survivors': Privately sponsored refugees adjust to new lives

Fayza Al Hariri and her family were one of the first refugee families in Fredericton in 2015. Now almost fluent in English, money remains the only concern.

Fayza Al Hariri and her family were one of the first refugee families in Fredericton in 2015

A Syrian family reflects on their first year in Fredericton 0:36

Everything was left behind the night Fayza Al Hariri and her family fled Syria, except her bronze coffee pot.

Now it sits on her kitchen stove in Fredericton, ready to serve guests with the traditional Arabian coffee.

Its taste is bittersweet.

"Not everyone likes it," she said.

The lucky ones

Everything was left behind the night Fayza Al Hariri and her family fled Syria, except her bronze coffee pot. (Viola Pruss/CBC)
There are seven of them, two adults and five children, cramped into a small, three-bedroom basement apartment.

Al Hariri's family was among the first to flee the war at home, seeking refuge in Lebanon for four years until they arrived in Fredericton on Dec. 18, 2015.

They are lucky, she said.

Her family was privately sponsored, taken in by the Faith Baptist Church in New Maryland. They had a community of people, a warm, furnished home and a well-stocked fridge waiting for them on that first, cold December night.

In Lebanon, their home had no door. The floor was made of dirt.

"It was not healthy, my house," she said.

"I was surprised when I first come to my house [in Canada]. I look and there were three bedrooms and salon and we have everything."

Private sponsorship: Faster integration

Since December 2015, New Brunswick has taken in 1,554 Syrian refugees. About 600 of them are school-age children, and 604 are working-age adults.

Around 1,400 depend on support from the federal government. Another 128, including Al Hariri's family, were privately sponsored by community groups and individuals.

They also receive money from the government but their private sponsors find them a home, and provide additional income and a network of people to help navigate their new life.

Al Hariri said she is happy that her children are going to school. (Viola Pruss/CBC)

In a recent interview with Information Morning Fredericton, Alex LeBlanc, the executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said privately sponsored refugees often integrate faster and better.

"And part of that is that all privately sponsored refugees have this community of support, whether its church groups or service clubs," said LeBlanc. "And they all have their own social and professional networks."

Support networks make a difference

A year ago, Al Hariri and her children spoke no English. Now they are almost fluent.

Faith Baptist Church Pastor Larry Matthews said the family had 20 people looking after them since they arrived.

The volunteers drove them everywhere from doctors' appointments to Al Hariri's daily English lessons.

Others helped them navigate all legal and health care documents, organized birthday parties for the children or invited them into their home.

"When you are talking seven people it's been almost a full-time job just doing that," he said.

"Quite often their dentist wasn't just a one trip to the dentist. Sometimes it was two or three or four trips to the dentist because they haven't had much health care in recent years."

The family lives in a three-bedroom apartment. All four boys share one room. (Viola Pruss/CBC)

He cannot imagine what it's like when refugees arrive and have no one to work with them one-on-one, he added.

"I don't know how they do it. I don't know how they get around. But they are survivors," he said.

Sponsorship ends after one year

The church's sponsorship commitment ends this month.

The refugees receive financial aid from the government and their sponsors for one year. If they are not employed, they can apply for provincial social assistance afterward.

So far, only 15 per cent of refugees in the province are self-employed or work in full- or part-time positions. Another five per cent gained some work experience in seasonal jobs, such as tree-planting.

But social assistance is only supposed to be a last resort. Government and settlement agencies hope most of the refugees can improve their language skills in the coming years and find employment.

What it costs

Al Hariri worked as an Arabic-language teacher in Lebanon but her English is not good enough yet to seek employment in New Brunswick.

Her husband, Hasan Alsalh, is deaf and struggles with a childhood injury to his leg. He cannot work, she said.

For most of the year, the family received about $1,200 a month from the government and another $1,300 a month from the church.

In July, the government changed its resettlement assistance program, paying out childcare benefits to the family instead.

Since then, they received $2,300 a month from the government and $200 from the church.

Once they go on provincial social assistance, Al Hariri says they get $2,300 a month from the province. She pays $1,070 a month for rent.

"About the money, all the time I am afraid, because I have a big family and my husband he cannot work," she said, adding that she hopes to find work in another year or two.

Adjusting to a new life

The traditional coffee Al Hariri serves to her guests is a small part of Syrian life she tries to preserve.

The Muslim family went through many changes in the past year. Some of them were easy, while others, such as girls and boys being friends in school, were more difficult to accept, she said.

She sometimes worries her children will lose their culture. Already, her oldest son Mohamad, 12, is forgetting Arabic words while his English improves every day.

But despite these differences, their new life is treating them well, she said.

"I was very afraid when I come," she said. "But now I am happy, because my children go to school, and my husband relax and I study English, and I have house. It's healthy, it's good."