Syrian refugees get help from not-so-new newcomers

People with first-hand experience of immigration are now supporting Syrian newcomers to Ottawa through a new OCISO program focused on peer support.

For the first time, OCISO is calling on integrated immigrants to support new arrivals

Zainab Kadhem, left, is helping Haneen Muttar Ahmed through OCISO's new peer support program for Syrian refugees. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

For most people, a trip to the nearest coffee shop with a friend is a chance to relax and catch up.

But for a newcomer like 24-year-old Haneen Muttar Ahmed, it's also a first step in the complex journey to adapting to a new country.

So when Zainab Kadhem headed to a local café recently with her new friend Muttar Ahmed, she encouraged Muttar Ahmed to place the coffee order herself.

"She told me she wants to be independent, able to talk to people," said Kadhem,

Muttar Ahmed came away with the coffees, and a boost in confidence from having finished the transaction in English. 

"She was so happy, she was jumping with joy," said Kadhem.

Helping newcomers integrate into community

Kadhem, who's about a decade older than Muttar Ahmed, isn't just a recent acquaintance — she's also a volunteer with a new peer support program for Syrian refugees offered by Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO).

The program connects Arabic-speaking volunteers with Syrian newcomers, and one of the program's key goals isto help refugees integrate into the community. The volunteers receive simple training and a few ground rules, such as not to provide employment or housing. Then it's up to them to meet with the clients to figure out how best to support them, whether it's translating at a doctor's appointment or helping plan a trip on OC Transpo. 

The first year is a honeymoon for the newcomer. But after one year, all kinds of problems, difficulties and crises show up.- OCISO peer support program coordinator Wadih Beheit

One of the biggest challenges for volunteers is providing emotional support. At a recent meeting, some confided that they were grappling with their clients' unwillingness to leave home, even on simple outings. Others worried about newcomers dwelling on their old lives in Syria, to the detriment of their progress in Canada.

'Everything is different'

Isolation and worry are difficult problems, but entirely normal for new arrivals, according to Karen White-Jones, the clinical coordinator of OCISO's counselling program. And predictable, at least to any Canadian who's tried to put themselves in newcomers' shoes.

"Imagine that all of a sudden you're in a country where it's over 100 degrees all the time, you don't speak the language, you have no friends, you can't take the bus, you don't know how to go to school, you don't know how to grocery shop," said White-Jones.

"The stores are different, everything is different. Would you want to go out? It's all just so unfamiliar, that it feels very frightening."
Rachel Thibeault, Wadih Beheit and Karen White-Jones have brought the new peer support program to OCISO. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Volunteers must tread carefully, encouraging the newcomers to venture out and socialize without pushing too hard.

Program coordinator Wadih Beheit, a counsellor who is himself a refugee from Syria, said newcomers may have landed in Canada months ago, but emotionally, many are still in transit. And right around now, a year after they first arrived, he'd expect them to be hitting a rough patch.

"The first year is a honeymoon for the newcomer," he said. "But after one year, all kinds of problems, difficulties and crises show up because he is aware, in his total person physically and emotionally, he is really out of his country and he is in the new country."

As the year draws to a close for the first wave of Syrian refugees, many are also making the transition away from government refugee allowances to social assistance.

Volunteers draw on shared experience

That's the case for 21-year-old Kafa Alwani, who arrived in Canada last December with a husband and young daughter. She's now expecting a second child, and this time, her peer supporter Basma Dakhqan will be there to help.

"I have four children of my own, so I know how it goes," said Dakhqan, who immigrated from Jordan six years ago. She was motivated to join the program by the tragic news unfolding in Syria, and by her own experience of life in Canada so far.

"It's been a wonderful six years for me. Most of the people I have met are welcoming," she said. "I would like them to have the same experience that I had when I came to Canada."
Kafa Alwani, left, with her daughter Salwa Tadmori, is settling into life in Ottawa with the help of Jordanian immigrant Basma Dakhqan (right). (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Like Dakhqan, many volunteers draw on their own life experience to connect with the newcomers.

Kadhem has roots in the same Iraqi city as Muttar Ahmed's family of nine. Though Muttar Ahmed lived in the Syrian city of Homs before coming to Canada, the two share an Arabic dialect. Perhaps more importantly, Kadhem has memories of her family's own move to Canada at age seven.

"I know that people go through so much," said Kadhem, who said her aim is to make her new acquaintances feel safe, and inspire trust so they are as comfortable reaching out to her as they would to a family member.

Peer support has advantages over counselling

That common experience is at the heart of the peer support model, according to Rachel Thibeault, a University of Ottawa health sciences professor who's volunteered her time to get OCISO's program up and running.

They're all people who've had to leave their country at one point or another. So already, that shared experience creates a bond that cannot be reproduced otherwise.- Karen White-Jones, clinical coordinator of OCISO's counselling program

She's used similar programs overseas to help people in conflict zones, where she said they've led to faster recovery in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These kinds of programs have even been used in the rehabilitation of child soldiers. 

​Thibeault said they even have some natural advantages over counselling with professionals like her.

"I don't know what it's like to be someone who's experienced war, haven't seen my family decimated by war," said Thibeault. "I've never been forced to flee in a hurry and leave everything behind. I don't have the credibility of the experience.

"Here with the program, it's not all refugees helping refugees. But they're all people who've had to leave their country at one point or another. So already, that shared experience creates a bond that cannot be reproduced otherwise."

Peer support programs are brand new for OCISO, but Karen White-Jones said she'd like them to become a standard service for newcomers to Canada. For now, they're helping shape the future of this small group of Syrians, although volunteers are needed. (For more information, email program coordinator Wadih Beheit at

Mutter-Ahmed is hoping her peer supporter can help her make the transition back to school, and also show her some fun along the way.

"She wants me to take her to theatres," said Zainab Kadhem, translating amid giggles. "We'll go, no worries."

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at or on Twitter @susanmburgess.