'I will be born again': First wave of Syrian refugees set to become Canadian citizens

Three years ago today, the first government plane filled with Syrian refugees touched down in Canada. Now, those first arrivals are eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship.

Language requirements, high fees remain barriers for some newcomers seeking citizenship

Basel Alzoubi (right) arrived in Canada with his family three years ago; he'll soon be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship. He is pictured here in his Ottawa home with his wife Hanaa and son Mousa. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Three years ago, the first government plane filled with Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war touched down in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a point of personally welcoming that initial wave of newcomers with donations of warm clothing and an invitation to join the Canadian "family."

Today, those recent arrivals mark a significant milestone: they've met the three-year residency requirement that makes them eligible to become Canadian citizens.

Some will swiftly embrace the opportunity to apply, while others face major barriers ranging from language proficiency requirements to prohibitive application fees.

Basel Alzoubi was among the Syrians in that first wave, arriving in Canada with his wife and three young children on Dec. 31, 2015.

Settling in to a new life here has involved challenges, he said — acclimating to the cold weather and learning a new language being the biggest. Alzoubi said he has been diligently preparing to apply for Canadian citizenship in the new year.

"I will be born again from this life," he said. "When I get Canadian citizenship it opens all the doors."

Alzoubi has learned English more quickly than many other Syrians, something he credits to his social nature, his volunteer work and the many jobs he's held since his arrival — everything from delivering pizzas and driving cabs to serving coffee and making shawarma. His wife, who usually stays home to care for the children, has had more difficulty picking up the language.

Alzoubi said he misses his mother and brother, who are now in Lebanon. He misses Syria.

"My Syria and my country is like my mom, in my soul and in my heart. I never forget for a second," he said. "Canada is my kids' home, their mother, because they will grow up here.

Syrian refugees mark three years since arriving in Canada

5 years ago
Duration 0:56
Featured VideoBasel Alzoubi arrived from Syria three years ago. Here, he talks about adjusting to life in Canada.

"Canada is that country that opened up for me and my kids, so it's my homeland."

The Syrian refugee resettlement initiative was a national project, drawing governments, community volunteers, sponsors and businesses together to bring 58,600 Syrians to the country.

'Big milestone'

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen called it a "big milestone."

"I'm very proud of the fact that we will be able to welcome many of these folks to join the Canadian family," he said in an interview.

"We want to ensure that all newcomers, including refugees, successfully integrate, and the end point of integration is becoming a Canadian citizen. Overall, I strongly believe that the Syrian initiative has been a success."

Hussen's office said government data show that resettled Syrian refugees are accessing settlement services at a higher rate than non-Syrian resettled refugees who arrived in Canada.

As of August 2018, 90 per cent of Syrian adults had received a needs assessment and referral, 89 per cent had received a language assessment, and 76 per cent had participated in federally-funded language training.

Settlement supports provided

The government also funds settlement supports such as orientation, language assessment and training, employment services, transportation, translation and child care.

"Our goal is for refugees to be self-sufficient and gainfully employed, but this is a long-term goal and requires the participation of all players, including government, businesses and civil society," said Hussen's spokesperson Mathieu Genest.

"While the integration process takes time, it is ultimately successful for refugees and benefits Canada. As with previous refugee arrivals, we expect the majority of Syrian refugees will ultimately succeed in our labour market and society."

The Liberal government relaxed certain rules around citizenship in 2017. The current requirements include:

  • Living in Canada three out of five years since arrival; this was reduced from four out of six years.
  • Meeting an age range for language and knowledge requirements of 18 to 54 years old, eased from the previous requirement of 14 to 64.
  • Filing income taxes.
  • Obtaining a level of proficiency in French or English.
  • Passing a knowledge test about Canada.
  • Not having a background of criminal offences that would prevent citizenship.

Refugee lawyer Leslie Anderson said that while the changes to the citizenship rules were welcome and made the application process easier for many newcomers, many obstacles persist. Learning a new language and acquiring the breadth of knowledge needed to pass the citizenship test can be challenging for those who have been traumatized by conflict, displacement and separation from loved ones.

Barriers to citizenship

"Barriers continue to exist," Anderson said. "Fees are still prohibitively expensive, particularly for those who are living at the poverty line. For somebody who's on minimum wage, a family of five ... that could represent almost an entire month's worth of the family's income."

The application fee is $630 for each adult and $100 for minors.

Citizenship gives Canadians the right to vote and obtain a Canadian passport. Anderson said that, for refugees, it also provides a critical sense of belonging after a long period of feeling "stateless."

"It leaves somebody in a space of limbo. We all need to know where home is, where we belong. And I think there's a long-term psychological and emotional impact to feeling that you're almost a member of a community, but not quite," she said.

Genest said resettling refugees will continue to be a "proud reflection" of Canada's humanitarian tradition.

"It demonstrates to the world that we have a shared responsibility to help those who are displaced, persecuted and most in need of protection," he said.

"All Canadians should be proud of this historic effort. It is a true demonstration of who we are – a diverse, strong, compassionate and welcoming country."