The growing quest to understand the Syrian refugee experience

Research into refugee issues has increased in "dramatic" fashion since the arrival of the Syrian newcomers. This is likely to shape federal and provincial immigration policies for years to come.

Canadian researchers working to understand in more detail what the future holds for Syrian refugee families

Abdul Razak, 5, cuddles Lonny while Ritaj, 4, looks on in the background. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

At four years old, Ritaj Daher is so small that when she picks up her neighbour's cat Lonny, his hind legs trail on the floor.

She and her brother Abdul Razak, 5, love to carry Lonny around their Halifax apartment that way. Lonny doesn't seem to mind, since he keeps coming back to visit. 

Their mother, Suzan Al-Malouhi, is still learning English, but she knows exactly how to describe her children as she watches them move the cat from room to room.

"They are very hyper," she says.

Al-Malouhi and her husband have five children, ranging in age from four to 17. They left Syria in 2011 and lived for five years in Lebanon, where she worked as a French, science and math teacher. They came to Halifax in January 2016.

"First year was difficult. Because we were alone here," she explains in English. "We came in the winter and stayed home around four months. We can't go out or know anyone to visit. Also, language was difficult for us."

Suzan Al-Malouhi, far left, says her first year in Canada was difficult. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Canadian researchers are working quickly to understand in more detail what the future holds for families like Al-Malouhi's.

What's known from previous refugee groups, however, is the experience of children will likely be very different than that of their parents.

Children who come to Canada as refugees typically integrate well and are often successful in the long term, according to Dalhousie University sociologist Howard Ramos. They are adept at learning a new language and are more likely to pursue post-secondary education than people born in Canada.

Their parents, however, are more likely to struggle. In their first decade in Canada, adult refugees typically find it harder than other immigrants to get work, Ramos said.

"There's all kinds of obstacles around language, around displacement, for many of the refugees that come as adults," he said.

That's one of the reasons Ramos said academics across the country have sprung into action, in what he calls "dramatic" form.

"Many people who were already doing immigration research began looking at refugee issues that they probably wouldn't have looked at before," he said.

Dalhousie University sociologist Howard Ramos. (CBC)

National research funding has been earmarked for refugee projects. Statistics Canada has embarked on new analysis. Locally, the Syrian refugee program prompted Dalhousie University to set up the cross-country Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition, of which Ramos is a member.

In the past, refugee research has often been done with five- or 10-year analysis of tax records. That's not going to be sufficient this time, Ramos said.

"We can't wait five years for the outcomes of children," he said. "If somebody is 15 years old now and we don't have any information until they're 20, we really lose an opportunity to help tweak the system and make sure that things are going to work for them.

"Likewise, if you think of an adult, five years of somebody's life is a long time to wait to adjust things to try and better integrate them into the economy and Canadian society."

Refugee children typically integrate well into Canada. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Ramos said the Syrian refugees and the research around their experience will shape federal and provincial immigration policies for years to come. That in turn will shape Canada.

"I see it changing policy already in terms of the research that has already been done. There are people who have done smaller surveys in western Canada in terms of housing needs. There are people who have looked at administrative records that they wouldn't have looked at before," he said.

"It's important to basically look at this cohort and think about what lessons can we learn."

Suzan Al-Malouhi said she wants to thank Canada for bringing her family to the country. The first year was difficult but things are getting easier.

She studies English every weekday morning, with extra English conversation and computer classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. As well, she attends a weekly French conversation group, having studied university-level French in Syria.

"It is hard for me to go to any university and continue my education here. It's hard for me. I had a diploma in my country. But here I can't continue my education," she said.

Suzan Al-Malouhi aspires to return to her French education and become an early childhood educator. (CBC)

She hasn't yet been able to convert her diploma to the Canadian equivalent to continue studying, but Al-Malouhi hopes to eventually finish her French education and become an early childhood educator.

Some of her children are in French school, and her eldest daughter is developing her love of painting, creating artworks that the family hang all around their apartment.

Al-Malouhi sees herself one day speaking both of Canada's official languages alongside Arabic, with a new job educating young children.

"I hope, I wish."

About the Author

Shaina Luck


Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: