Refugees' first year in Canada can be one of challenges, joy

So what will it be like for all these new Syrian refugees starting their new lives in Canada, and their sponsors? Two Canadians with nearly a century of combined experience in refugee sponsorship explain what it's all about.

Sponsoring refugees rewarding, too, say two Canadians who have been doing this for decades

A Syrian refugee and child arrive at a hotel in Mississauga, Ont., early Friday. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Canada's newest wave of refugees, this time from Syria, has started arriving at Canadian airports. 

As of Dec. 10, almost 700 had arrived, and that is on top of the nearly 2,000 (80 per cent privately sponsored) who came earlier in the year, before the Trudeau government took office.

During their first year in Canada, resettled refugees receive financial assistance for housing and food and clothing, as well as medical coverage, either from the government or their sponsors. 

To help paint a picture of a refugee's first year, CBC News spoke to two Canadians who, between them, have sponsored hundreds of asylum seekers and have nearly a century of experience helping these "strangers at our gates" settle in. 

Karin Gordon, of Winnipeg, says she has been helping newcomers since she was 10, starting in the late 1950s in her hometown, Thunder Bay, during the wave of refugees fleeing Hungary.

For the last six years, her "retirement gig" has been working at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, which sponsored 600 refugees who arrived last year.

Don Smith of Ottawa became involved helping refugees during the wave of Southeast Asian boat people who arrived in the late 1970s and early '80s.

A retired civil servant, he now volunteers as the chair of the refugee working group at the Anglican Diocese in Ottawa.

Arrival day 

The Hungarian refugees arriving in Thunder Bay mostly came by train, but now Gordon usually meets the newcomers at the airport in Winnipeg. Sometimes, it's at the Emerson border crossing in southern Manitoba.

Sponsor groups for two Syrian refugee families hold up signs welcoming their charges at Toronto's Pearson Airport. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

At the airport, "I introduce myself, give them a big hug and a welcome, collect their baggage and take them to our house." 

That is what she does for refugees with no family to greet them, but Gordon is also frequently at the airport to help those privately sponsoring family members, when she gets to witness "touching family reunifications," since the people often haven't seen each other for years.

"It's a great, great joy that the people who have been in such difficult circumstances finally arrive here, and they're safe and reunited with their family," she says.

In most cases, the private sponsors are related to the refugees.

Don Smith describes "the wow factor" for refugees when they arrive in Canada, usually starting at an airport. For the newcomer without family in Canada, Smith says there is usually a feeling that they're safe and that there's a group of strangers who care about them.

"Typically, somebody has prepared a huge ethnic meal -- we usually find someone in the community from the same ethnic group," Smith says. 

In his sponsorship network, the members take the newcomers home, not to their new apartment, even if it's ready, for the first night or two.

"As a general rule, there's a great feeling of family."

First few months challenging 

Two Syrian children wait for the first flight taking refugees to Toronto from Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The younger the refugee, the easier it is to adapt, says Smith. 

For younger kids, the challenge is about the same as anyone their age moving to a new community, and language issues are quickly overcome. 

Teenagers experience the same angst most teens would, moving to a new city and losing all their friends.

Usually the adults want to get a job as quickly as possible, but that can be tough, especially if they don't speak English or French. 

For heads of family, the desire to provide for their family is powerful, Smith says. And for professionals who won't be able to practise in their field because of Canadian rules, it's especially difficult.

While resettled refugees are entitled to financial support during their first year, quite often they become self-sufficient before the year is up, Gordon says. 

That seems especially to be the case for family sponsorships, because the Canadian members often have connections to entry-level jobs as cleaners or the like that almost no Canadians want.

If they don't have family here, Gordon says, finding affordable housing is often a challenge.

Refugees are eligible for public housing, but Gordon says the waiting lists are so long they rarely get in during that first year. But if they can get provincial rental assistance, "that gives them a huge leg up."

She says Hospitality House gives the newcomers a big package of information on getting their kids registered for school, getting social insurance numbers, finding a place to live, and so on. 

She has had lots of experience helping out with those things, too, plus getting furniture and other necessities.

Newcomers are entitled to child and other government benefits, like any Canadian, but these usually take four to five months to start, although the payments are retroactive.

Settling in

Both Gordon and Smith have observed that one of the hardest things for refugees in Canada is dealing with the family members and the culture they left behind. 

Karin Gordon, who's been involved in over 100 refugee sponsorships, says, 'I tell people I don't make friends, I import them.' (Erin Brohman/CBC)

That can prey on them, Smith says, recalling the first thing a refugee mother from Afghanistan said to him: "I'm so happy for my children here, but I'm so sorry for the children I had to leave behind."

The relationship between refugees and the key contacts in their sponsorship group can be very close in that first year. 

"As the year goes by, they get into their own routine, then they start becoming more independent," says Smith.

Gordon says it's important to "realize that these people have been traumatized, forced out of their own country, often they've had  huge losses, stumbled over the bodies of family members as they're fleeing."

And sponsors sometimes need to help the newcomers "develop a bit of a hide, especially people who are visibly different," she says. "They may encounter racism and you have to prepare them," although she notes that is by no means a regular event.

Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, and Lilian Asiimwe, who came to Canada as a refugee from Rwanda, attend her graduation from the University of Ottawa in 2012. (Don Smith)

For the sponsors, "often the most important thing is just to be their friend, to accompany them and to explain," she says.

At 69, Gordon says she's still learning from the newcomers, who have so enriched her life.

Sponsoring all those refugees has been rewarding for Smith, too, and some of that is seeing what they accomplish. One of them is Lilian Asiimwe, a girl from Rwanda when he co-sponsored her in the 1990s, who's now at the International Criminal Court, helping prosecute accused war criminals.