Sponsored Syrian refugees prepare to go it alone

Sponsorship groups have helped ease the transition for Syrian refugees who arrived in Ottawa a year ago. While the social and emotional support will continue, some sponsors are preparing to cut financial assistance to their families.

After a year in Ottawa, funding from sponsors running out for many refugee families

Nirmeen Alsebai and Jehad Alsebaee with their children Lyana 3, Zeid 5, and twins Abdullah (left) and Mohamad (right), 7. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

If Syrian refugees Jehad Alsebaee and Nirmeen Alsebai had written up a to-do list of things they wanted to accomplish in their first year in Ottawa, there would be plenty of check marks by now.

Apartment rented and furnished — check.

The couple's four young children settled into school and daycare — check.

Make new friends in the neighbourhood and at school — check.

Obtain an Ontario driver licence — check.

Find a job — check.

But despite their many achievements, the couple acknowledges one big disappointment: after a full year of ESL classes, three hours a day, five days a week, coupled with countless hours practising at home, both Alsebaee and Alsebai​'s English skills remain rudimentary at best. 

Come in Canada, no English. Now, little English.- Jehad Alsebaee

"Come in Canada, no English. Now, little English" Jehad, 43, managed slowly, with prompting from his wife.

Alsebai, 28, has progressed further, but not nearly as far as she'd expected.

"It's very hard because I like quickly, I want to quickly learning English," she said.

Family of 6 fled violence in Homs

The family of six fled their home city of Homs amid constant bombing more than three years ago, escaping first to Cairo, Egypt, then to Beirut, Lebanon.
Nirmeen Alsebai and Jehad Alsebaee arrived in Ottawa in December 2015. The $3,000 monthly allowance they receive from the group that sponsored them will run out in the new year. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

When they arrived in Ottawa as privately sponsored refugees on Dec. 22, 2015, they knew no one.

They were met at the airport by members of the Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship, one of several hundred groups in the city that formed last year to sponsor Syrian refugees. 

The group, based out of Trinity Anglican Church in Old Ottawa South, had more than 30 members and had been preparing to welcome the family for months. The group had already found and rented an apartment in a safe, family-oriented apartment complex in Vanier. 

Members of the group donated clothing, furniture, kitchen supplies and appliances so the family wouldn't lack for anything.

Sponsors helped family over hurdles

Since Alsebai and Alsebaee spoke only Arabic when they arrived, and had no friends or family here, the group arranged for translators to help them over the many bureaucratic hurdles newcomers encounter, including registering their children for elementary school and themselves for ESL classes, setting up bank accounts, getting their OHIP and library cards, and applying for federal assistance (the family arrived on a blended visa, and so initially received funding from both their sponsors and the government).
Jehad Alsebaee works part time at this Ottawa car wash. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

There were bus routes to explain, medical and dental appointments to arrange, and potential employers to contact.

The family's sponsors also took them sight-seeing, showing them the city's museums, shopping malls and important landmarks. They also introduced the family to what must have seemed strange cultural practices such as Halloween. 

"We, in a sense ... provided a community so that they were never alone," said the sponsorship group's chair, Robert Taylor.

In halting English, the couple acknowledged it all would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, without the army of volunteers there to help.

Sponsorship money running out

For the first six months after the family's arrival they received $1,500 per month from their sponsors and another $1,500 from the federal government under the refugee resettlement program. When the federal money ran out in July the sponsorship group picked up the government's portion, providing the family with a monthly allowance of $3,000.
Sons Abdulah, Zeid and Mohamad have been introduced to new cultural experiences including Halloween. (Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship)

But that money ends this month, the family's first anniversary in Canada. The group is now arranging for the parents to receive social assistance, supplemented by the Canada child benefit and income from Alsebaee's part-time job at a car wash.

After much debate, the group made the the difficult decision to use what's left in their coffers to sponsor other refugees who want to come to Ottawa. They estimate they have enough to support at least nine more newcomers over the coming year.

"We are in a position to help these other people who are in the position Jehad and Nirmeen were in a year-and-a-half ago, some of them in a fairly perilous situation in Lebanon, and if we can help them achieve the same life that we've been able to help Nermeen and Jehad get this year, that seems to be a valid way for the committee to go," Taylor said. 

Sponsors confident family will succeed

The sponsors will continue to support the family in other ways, helping the couple find full-time employment and overcome other issues as they arise.

I've always been really impressed with the bravery that they've shown in getting their family out of that mess and coming to a place they knew nothing about.- Michael Casey, sponsor

Sponsor Michael Casey said the group decided to let the family go it alone because they're confident Alsebaee and Alsebai have the resourcefulness to fend for themselves.

"I've always been really impressed with the bravery that they've shown in getting their family out of that mess and coming to a place they knew nothing about, and so they've been able to carry that moxy all the way through. I think they both have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in them, and I think in the long term they're going to do really well," Casey said.
The family with members of their sponsorship group. (Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship)

But the sponsorship group also knows the couple won't be able to truly succeed in Canada until their English improves.

"Talking to other people who are in the immigrant community, the sort of feeling is that it takes two years to get on your feet," said Tom Lawson, who handles finances for the sponsorship group. "It would have been wonderful if they had been employed after 12 months, but we don't view it as a failure but as a stepping stone to the next 12 months."

Alsebai said her goal is to make clothes for Muslim women. Alsebaee, who worked as a carpenter and chauffeur in Syria, wants to go to school to learn how to cut hair. The couple also talks of one day opening a Syrian restaurant.

For now, both are focusing on ticking just one more item off their Canadian to-do list: speaking fluent English.
The family visited Parliament Hill last summer. (Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship)