Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Canada stuck with erroneous names

Many of the thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Canada in the last few years face a vexing problem: erroneous names recorded on their official immigration papers. The problems largely arise from transferring Arabic names into French or English. So far, more than 400 people have applied for official name changes.

Canada waives fees for some Syrian refugee name changes, others face uphill battle to get new documents

Government-sponsored Syrian refugees initially lived in Ottawa hotels in 2015-2016 as they waited for permanent housing. Among several frustrations in their new country: Syrian family names were often misspelled on official documents. (CBC)

Syrian refugees who have recently settled in Canada have another hurdle in addition to learning a new language, finding a place to live and getting a job.

They need to fix their names.

Hundreds of Syrian families who fled to Canada with little or no documentation are upset with the versions of their names that wound up on Canadian immigration papers.

Some 3,000 came to Canada with exit visas from Turkey. They were filled out by Turkish-speaking officials who transliterated their Arabic names using Turkish pronunciations and spellings.

Others arrived through Jordan, Lebanon or Egypt where other officials often mangled their monikers.

The result? The names on their Canadian identity documents are often not quite the names these refugees prefer, adding to the stress of adapting to a new country.

Syrian refugee children who fled violence in Ain al-Arab, known also as Kobani, collect water in a camp in the border town of Suruc, Turkey, in 2015. Canada accepted many Syrian refugees bearing a Turkish exit visa - but those visas often misrecorded Syrian names. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

Some members of the same family have even been stuck with slightly different last names, the result of hastily processed forms, no documentation from their home country and the difficulties of transliterating Arabic names using a Roman alphabet.

As of this month, at least 422 Syrian refugees who arrived through Turkey have applied to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to fix their official names. A total of 270 have been approved so far. Many others who arrived through other Middle East countries face the same problem.

Frustrated, obsessed

"This is affecting a lot of families," says Maria Teresa Garcia, a manager with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in downtown Ottawa.

"They become frustrated. … They get obsessed, and the reality is they don't have the documents to process the corrections."

The immediate issue for refugees is amending a key document called a Confirmation of Permanent Residence, in a bureaucratic process that costs applicants $30, with another $50 charged for amending the related Permanent Resident card.

The problem is faced by lots of refugees in the whole region when transliterating their names from Arabic to English.- Ghina Koussa, Ottawa immigrant community volunteer 

In the case of Syrian refugees admitted on a Turkish exit visa, Canada's Immigration Department has agreed to waive those fees until 2021. As of March last year, Syrian refugees began being processed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, say department officials, ending the Turkish transliteration issue.

But Ghina Koussa, an Ottawa volunteer who works with the immigrant community, says the name-change dilemma is a much larger problem.

"The issue is beyond the Turkish transliteration. The problem is faced by lots of refugees in the whole region when transliterating their names from Arabic to English," she said in an interview.

"Transliteration can vary a lot, depending on the [government] personnel at intake. Human error is a big factor as well."

Example of a permanent resident card. (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada)
Koussa cited the example of a common name with a standard spelling in Arabic, but with many Westernized variants: Youssef, Yousef, Yusef, Yussef, Yusuf, Yosuf, Yusof.

Fixing these Syrian refugee names also has an impact on the provinces.

"Depending on the number of requests and changes, provinces and territories may raise concerns about additional costs and administrative burden of reissuing provincial health cards, changing school records, and driver's licenses, etc.," says a June 2016 briefing note for the deputy minister at IRCC, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

"This [fee-waiver] approach may still risk the appearance of Syrian refugees being given preferential treatment not afforded to other refugees."

Initially overwhelmed

The Catholic Centre for Immigrants was initially overwhelmed with requests for help on name changes, and told refugees that other priorities would be dealt with in the first year, said Koussa, who now works for the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization.

But a year later, between 20 and 30 Syrian families in the region have come forward to try to resolve the name issue.

"The family name of the father is different from the daughter's, is different from the other daughter," Koussa said, citing one example. "At the end of the day, you want the whole family to have the same written [and] spelled family name."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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