Metro Morning

Syrian refugees in GTA hotels struggle to find affordable housing

Three months after the first planeloads of Syrian refugees touched down in Toronto, hundreds are still living in hotels and struggling to find affordable housing in the city, including Ahmed Haj Ali, his partner, Manal Almoor, and their five children.

Newcomers wonder how they'll be able to afford a home for their family in the city

Ahmed Haj Ali and Manal Almoor say they are worried they won't be able to find affordable housing in the Greater Toronto Area. (CBC)

Three months after the first planeloads of Syrian refugees touched down in Toronto, hundreds are still living in hotels and struggling to find affordable housing in the city, including Ahmed Haj Ali, his partner, Manal Almoor, and their five children.

The family of government-assisted refugees has been living at the Toronto Park Plaza hotel in Etobicoke since they arrived from a refugee camp in Lebanon in late January.

On CBC Radio's Metro Morning, they talked about the struggle to find a home in the Greater Toronto Area.

Unlike the thousands of privately-sponsored refugees in Canada, government-assisted refugees arrive in this country with no committee or church group waiting to help them get settled.

So far, 1,077 government-assisted refugees have been settled into homes in the GTA, while another 850 are still waiting in hotels across the city, according to COSTI immigrant services, which helps refugees and immigrants settle in Canada.

COSTI executive director Mario Calla said "affordable housing is challenging at the best of times" in an email to CBC News.

"It takes time to find housing that accommodates larger-size families and is also within their budget," he said. "With 4,500 Syrian newcomers arriving in such a short time, it's taking longer for them to find their first home."

COSTI said refugees currently staying in Toronto hotels are not the same as those who arrived three months ago, adding many of them are landing on an ongoing basis.

'Everything was clean'

At least four families left the Toronto Plaza Hotel to move into their new homes Thursday, thanks to the work of COSTI. Ali and Almoor say they hope they'll be next. 

They told Metro Morning that they're grateful just to be here. Ali said he'll never forget his first glimpse of the city — the bright lights of Pearson International Airport.

"We spent two years without electricity, without TV, so the first thing we noticed was the amount of lights around us," he said through his COSTI translator. "And everything was clean."

The difference between where they're staying now and the camp in Lebanon is like "the difference between sky and earth," he said.

Back at the camp, they had to fetch water from 200 metres away and children would die from cold exposure in the winter or heat exhaustion in the summer. 

While they're glad to have arrived in Canada, they now face a new set of worries.

Ali, who laid tiles to support his family back in Syria, has no idea how he'll be able afford to rent a home with his wife, their nine-year-old triplet boys and their two daughters, ages 10 and 13.

"The rent is extremely high," he said.  
Ebraheem Kanaan is a Syrian refugee who works with COSTI as a translator. He says his new Etobicoke neighbourhood is starting to feel like a community. (CBC)

They're putting their hope in COSTI, which recently helped Ebraheem Kanaan find an apartment. 

He moved in February to an Etobicoke neighbourhood where a number Syrian refugee families have settled. It's starting to feel like a community, he said. 

"You feel happy when you see people in the street or in the English centres," he told host Matt Galloway on Metro Morning

An English teacher in Syria before fleeing to Jordan, he now works as a translator for COSTI and helps his fellow refugees. But he's excited for whatever comes next.

"I have a lot of options here, because life here is different," he said.

With files from Mary Wiens