Syrian refugees fear what lies ahead as government-sponsored year runs out

A year after arriving in Canada, the first wave of resettled Syrian refugees is about to face a whole new round of challenges when government sponsorship runs out in December. CBC checked in with one family we first met a year ago to see how they were coping.

Federal sponsorship ends in December for families who arrived in 1st wave of Syrian refugee program

Zainab and Ibrahim Tonbari fled Syria and settled in Windsor, Ont., a year ago with their four children, from bottom left: Hilal, 18 months, Bilal, 6, Houda, 3, and Noura, 7. They count their blessings but still face tough adjustments ahead as the federal sponsorship that helped them get through their first year in Canada is about to run out. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

A year after arriving in Canada, the first wave of resettled Syrian refugees is about to face a whole new round of challenges.

December begins the so-called Month 13, when the government-sponsored refugee package, with its monthly living allowance, ends for many families. They either have to support themselves or fall back on provincial social assistance.

"I'm very thankful to the government for providing for me, but I really want to work. I don't want to depend on the government," said Ibrahim Tonbari, who brought his family of six to Windsor, Ont., one year ago.

I'm very thankful to the government for providing for me, but I really want to work. I don't want to depend on the government.- Ibrahim Tonbari

Twelve months after uprooting, the Tonbaris count their many blessings: two kids in school, a three-bedroom rented house and enough food for the family.

But Tonbari, 30, is struggling to pick up enough English to secure work in the construction business. Between language classes and getting his family settled, he hasn't found a job — and there's another baby on the way.

He worries but says he had little choice other than to leave Homs, Syria, behind.

"Everything I ever built since I was 12 — I had a home and I furnished it, and I had savings so I could start my business in Syria — it's all gone," he said.

Ibrahim Tonbari, pictured with his youngest son, Hilal, is motivated to get work to support his growing family, but he struggles to learn enough English to find a job. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Next month, his family will have access to Ontario Works, the province's social assistance program, until Tonbari can get working.

"The first year is very difficult. Settlement is a long process," said Kathleen Thomas, director at the Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex.

"We know from the past the majority [of refugees] do not stay on social assistance". 

Family left behind pleads for help

When CBC News first met the Tonbaris a year ago, they had fled to northern Lebanon, 11 kilometres from the Syrian border. They were living in one room, in an unfinished cinder-block building with water and dirt pooled on the cement floor. Zainab, 28, cooked one-pot meals while squatting beside a gas camp stove. She was packing their belongings into three large rucksacks to fly out to Canada the next day, leaving behind Ibrahim's elderly parents.

"It was the only time I ever saw my father cry," her husband said. "Just before I left he said, 'Please don't forget about me. Please bring me to Canada.' He still asks me about this."

Tonbari, his wife, Zainab, and daughters Noura and Houda the night before they left northern Lebanon for Canada in November 2015. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

It's the same for many refugees. Painful memories of family left behind in the war, or living in limbo, haunt them; they feel pressured and guilty. It's called the echo effect. Canadian immigration policy allows for reunification but only when refugees can financially support their extended family members — and most can't do that.

Help could come from private sponsors.

In Windsor, the Tonbaris have hooked up with a private group that initially hoped to sponsor a Syrian family but has instead applied to bring over the Tonbari grandparents. The group of lawyers from the University of Windsor law school sent in the application last week.

"Family units weren't only nuclear families — young parents, young children — but also the grandparents and siblings, already decimated by war, and these people have clung together," said Anneke Smit, heading up the group.

"Now, we've said we'll take some but not the rest. We've torn family units apart."

Bilal was excited to be in school and fit in right away, says his first teacher in Windsor. Bilal spoke only Arabic when he arrived but now speaks English with ease. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Syrian arrivals to slow this year

But as the Canadian government retools its immigration numbers, it appears the surge of Syrian refugees was a one-off — at least for now. The large number of Syrians expedited into Canada this year will not be repeated next year.

Soon after being elected, the Liberal government set a target of resettling 44,800 refugees from all countries in 2016, which the government is not on pace to reach, according to the most recent tally from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In 2017, that target shrinks by more than a third, to 25,000 refugees — closer to pre-2015 levels and consistent with averages during the Harper government years.

The government is also shifting its burden of government-assisted refugees (GARS): Over the past year, 18,400 Syrians were subsidized by the federal government; next year the target is 7,500. 

So while Canada has made a reputation internationally for its generous plan, there will be far fewer spots next year.

Noura is going to school for the first time. At École L'Envolée in Windsor, she found friends and is learning French. Within a few years, Noura will be trilingual: fluent in French, English and Arabic. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The Tonbaris know they were fortunate getting in on the first wave. Unquestionably, their lives have changed dramatically: Their oldest daughter and son — Noura, 7, and Bilal, 6 — are in school for the first time and learning French at École L'Envolée in Windsor.

"What a difference between January and June," said Michelle Lalonde, their kindergarten teacher last year.

"They had Arabic. They knew maybe one or two words in English — that was it," she said. "Now you see them relaxed. They understand us in French. This has become home."

War continues back home

But for the parents there are no easy adjustments, not when your home country is still at war. 
At Beirut airport in November 2015, Aida Tonbari cuddles the grandson she may not see again for a very long time, if ever. She and her husband were left behind in war-torn Syria when her son and his family fled to Canada. (Susan Ormiston/CBC )

Zainab is pregnant with her fifth child and still taking care of the two youngest: Hilal, 18 months, and Houda, 3. She says that first winter in Windsor was "dark" and she felt low. Now, as she collects two of her kids from the school bus stop, she reflects on how happy she is that they are learning.

"Back there in Lebanon, I used to watch other kids going to school. I was so sad that mine were not," she said.

But the painful, still-hidden wound for Zainab is her family, still in Damascus.

"My mom is happy for me because my life is better here than back home, but she wants to see me," Zainab says as she begins to cry.

"I'm scared I'll never be able to go back there to see her."

WATCH: Susan Ormiston's documentary on the Tonbari family:

Syrian refugee family facing new challenges

7 years ago
Duration 12:13
The challenges are about to grow for Syrian refugees in Canada. One year in, refugee assistance benefits are ending.


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.