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From Aleppo to Toronto: Syrian family arrives in Canada safe but penniless

Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto are often between a rock and a hard place — physically safe, but financially on edge.

Arriving in Canada is not the end of precarious living for many Syrians

A man walks past damage in the Al-Maysar neighbourhood of Aleppo in 2014. The ancient city has been in extreme turmoil since 2012.

The first part of Toronto Anie Kheshvajian noticed when she woke up her first morning here was the stillness.

"The birds singing, and weather is very very good," said Kheshvajian, a very recently resettled Syrian refugee. "In Aleppo, no way... no way."

Aleppo, Syria, once famous as one of the most ancient and cultured cities in the world, is now a war zone.

Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto can rest assured they are on relatively safe ground — they no longer face the daily danger of migrating across choppy waters or violence. 

But they are between a rock and a hard place — physically safe, but financially on edge.

Toronto is far more expensive than the cities they've left behind, and their life's savings are quickly depleted. Most of the newcomers are determined not to be a financial burden on their sponsors, but jobs can be hard to come by in a brand new place.

Leaving it all behind

In the spring of 2012, Kheshvajian and her husband Raffi moved into what was to be their dream house, on the western side of Aleppo, surrounded by other Armenian Syrians.

Raffi, 54, was doing well financially, buying and selling gold. Anie, 48, was at home, raising three children, with more time to play piano now that her youngest kids were in their teens.  

When it came time to flee Aleppo, all of that was left behind. Of all their possessions, leaving the piano was the hardest.

"My daughter cries about the piano," Kheshvajian said. "My daughter, she loves Chopin."

In Armenian, Raffi explains that after the fighting started in Aleppo, he was one of the lucky few who kept working. Being in the gold business was busy enough, but then Syria's currency went into free fall. People were selling their jewelry to survive, or converting their Syrian pounds into more portable gold ounces as they prepared to leave.

But gold in Aleppo couldn't buy electricity or running water, and certainly not peace of mind.  

Whenever Raffi left the house to work, Anie would pace their bedroom — the safest room in the house — where she huddled with her children, wondering if Raffi would ever return.

They would agonize over what they would do if Raffi did not come home. Where would they go? How would they live?

Raffi finally accepted the terrible reality that there was no end in sight to the fighting in Syria. He and his family had to leave.

From Aleppo to Toronto

The Kheshvajians did what dozens of other people in their neighbourhood had done — called an Armenian acquaintance in Toronto to ask for help.

It was a well-travelled path for Armenian Syrians, so the family promised they would not be a burden, financially or otherwise.

"I say to my sponsor, 'I pay everything,'" Raffi said in broken English. "'You sign for sponsor,' I say, 'because another choice, I don't have.'"

The Kheshvajians were registered as refugees by the UNHCR, but they were not recommended to the government of Canada for sponsorship. So they made the trip completely on private sponsorship.

After migration, the family is now in a small rented bungalow in Scarborough. 

The only part of their lives that is the same as when they were in Aleppo is a small set of coffee cups Raffi brought with them.

The apartment has set them back, though. It was far more expensive than they had expected. They had to pay six months down to get it. Raffi is unemployed, but job-hunting. He is willing to work at anything for anyone who will waive the demand for Canadian experience:

"They want Canadian experience. How can I have Canadian experience?" he asked.

Making plans in Canada

Both the Kheshvajians are enrolled in ESL classes. Anie says she may give up her class to save the $60 she spends per week on TTC tokens.

Transportation is another financial drain. Sometimes Anie and Raffi walk long distances to avoid paying an extra fare.

Anie has some advice for elected officials as Canada prepares to accept another 25,000 Syrian refugees.  Offer refugees free public transit for their first year. She said it's the single most important thing she can suggest.

Despite her financial problems, Ani is optimistic.

"I believe I will be good. I think positive, not negative. We will be good, and we will be happy here. Of course. Need time, yes."

The recent arrival has started making plans for her new life in Toronto. For instance, she said she is determined to get a piano within two years. 


After this story aired on Metro Morning, almost 15 offers came in to provide the Kheshvajians with a piano. Read about the acts of kindness here.


Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"