Toronto

These Syrian refugees named their son after Justin Trudeau but now, their optimism is fading

CBC Toronto caught up with the Alahmad family, one year after first sharing their story. After arriving full of hope and optimism, these Syrian refugees are now struggling to learn English, find work, and fully integrate into Canadian society.

CBC Toronto caught up with the Alahmad family a year after first sharing their story

A year ago, Hussam Alahmad and his family, including his wife Sherin, the couple's three-year-old daughter Izdihar, and their son Justin - named after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - were living in a hotel room in North York as new refugees. They were full of optimism for the future, but their life in Canada is full of more challenges than they expected. (Ed Middleton/CBC News)

After fleeing war-torn Syria, Hussam Alahmad and his wife Sherin decided to start a new life in Canada. Soon after arriving, they welcomed their second child — a newborn boy with a mop of dark hair — on safe Canadian soil.

The couple named him "Justin," in honour of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was a gesture of gratitude to their adopted country, an optimistic Alahmad said last February.

But one year later, the family's optimism is fading.

Since CBC Toronto last met the Alahmads, the family of four moved from a North York hotel room, found for them by a non-profit case worker, to a one-bedroom apartment in Mississauga. They're relying primarily on government assistance to scrape enough cash together for food, clothing, and their $1400 per month unit.

Until recently, Alahmad, Sherin and their three-year-old daughter Izdihar were sleeping on the bedroom floor. Now, thanks to a donation, they have a single air mattress.

There's also a sense of overwhelming loneliness.

The family wasn't government or privately sponsored, but instead came as refugee claimants after first living abroad, then moving to Canada through the U.S., with just $300 to spend. Even now, the Alahmads lack a support network to help them learn English, make friends, and find employment. 

These Syrian refugee cases are in the minority, according to government data. Experts say families and individuals in this situation may slip through the cracks — a stark contrast to the welcoming parties and ongoing support offered to thousands of sponsored Syrian refugees.

"I'm lost," said Alahmad, still the only member of the family who speaks fluent English. "I'm lost now."

Hussam Eddin Alahmad and his wife fled war-torn Syria and are now living in a North York hotel room with their young daughter and newborn son, Justin. 0:25

Family came to Canada with just $300

Sitting in his living room in a dark jacket, tie, and pants — from a suit he saved up for over four months — Alahmad said that even after applying for numerous jobs in the automotive sector and elsewhere, he is still unemployed despite having 14 years of experience working at car dealerships in Syria.

Canadian employers, he explained, want Canadian experience.

"That makes me so, so depressed, and so frustrated," Alahmad said. "If I don't find this opportunity, how can I [gain] Canadian experience?"

Alahmad is volunteering at a local food bank near their high-rise in Mississauga, which gives him a sense of purpose, but he really wants to work, both for his own mental health and to support his struggling loved ones including his wife and children in Canada, and his ailing mother in Turkey.

Speaking in Arabic, Sherin said life in Canada is hard. She's been waiting for a spot in local English language classes for six months, Alahmad said. 

"I can't find my future by myself here," he added. "We have a lot of obstacles."

Syrian refugee Hussam Alahmad hopes to find stable work to provide for his family, including his ailing mother Ezdihar (shown here) who is currently living overseas in Istanbul, Turkey. (Supplied by Hussam Alahmad)

'Everything gets turned upside down'

Government data shows that since November 2015, more than 40,000 government or privately sponsored Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada.

Far fewer came alone as refugee claimants like the Alahmads, and with far less fanfare.

Even so, according to data obtained by CBC News, the Immigration and Refugee Board decided on roughly 3,300 cases from Syria between January 2013 and September 2017, with most receiving positive decisions.

That means thousands of Syrians may have come to Canada without the support of a sponsorship network in recent years.

Refugee and immigration experts say that while many Syrian refugees are now employed and speaking English, those without a strong support network through government or private sponsorship may have a tougher time. Many also face mental health struggles as they adjust to new challenges and a radically different life in Canada, regardless of how they came.

"Everything gets turned upside down," said Mario Calla, executive director of Toronto-based COSTI Immigration Services.

Refugees who are the most qualified actually have some of the biggest career challenges, said Anne Woolger, founding director of Matthew House Toronto.

That's because their experience may not easily translate to a Canadian career, due to different designations, forms of training, or language barriers. And for those without sponsorship, Woolger said, navigating Canadian services and career options can be even more overwhelming.

Hussam Alahmad hugs his three-year-old daughter Izdihar at the Syrian refugee family of four's home, a one-bedroom apartment in Mississauga. (Ed Middleton/CBC News)

But refugee success stories are the norm in the long run, Calla and Woolger agreed.

COSTI has worked with many creative, entrepreneurial refugees who have launched their own businesses. One family, Calla said, began a catering company out of their home. Later, the father began working in a restaurant, and the family now runs their own restaurant in Oakville.

"You don't hit the ground running when you arrive," he said. "It takes a while, and things start to fall into place."

Woolger said what's crucial for refugees is established Canadians opening doors, be it inviting a refugee family over for dinner or offering them their first job.

That's what Alahmad is hoping for. Not a handout, he said, but an opportunity that will allow him to provide for his family and, one day, give back.

"I love Canada, from my heart. I would like to do everything for Canada," he said. "But I haven't found the opportunity to start."


Lauren Pelley can be reached by email at lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

With files from Rima Hamadi, Tara Carman