The Current

'It's a girl!': Snapshots of Syrian refugees in Canada one year later

Syrian refugees were welcomed by the government and Canadians but adjusting to life here, reconciling with what they've left behind has its challenges. One year on, The Current brings you the stories of families who now call Canada home.
There's a new member of the Al Abdallah family. Her name is Scham, the first Canadian citizen of the family. She was born Dec. 13. Both mom and baby are doing well. (Courtesy of Al Abdallah family)

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It's been one year since refugees began arriving in Canada, and the year-long commitments of support — from private sponsors and the federal government — are due to run out. 

Here are a few snapshots of how some Syrian refugee families have settled into Canada.

The Al Abdallah Family

Mohamed and Sowsan Al Abdallah, and their children, Aya, 8, and Reemas, 6, arrived in Canada, Dec. 7, 2015. (Willow Smith/CBC)

On Dec. 7, 2015, the Al Abdallah family arrived in Toronto. They barely spoke any English. Now, parents Mohamed and Sowsan are taking English classes, and their girls, Aya, 8, and Reema, 6, are in school.

Proud Dad with the newest member of the family, newborn baby Scham, born Dec. 13. (Rebecca Davies)

Mohamed hopes to become fluent enough to get a job.

"For sure we're going to have some difficulties because the year is over," says Sowsan. 

The Al Abdallah family spent three years in Lebanon after leaving Syria. Staying was not an option.

"The most important reason we left Syria is seeing our kids safe," says Sowsan.

For Mohamed it's emotionally hard knowing he still has family back home.

"My mind is always thinking about them," he says.

The Al Abdallah family, sponsored by 17 individuals in a group called The Ripple Refugee Project, live in a northwest Toronto apartment. Mohamed's mother and father, and Mohamed's two brothers, one of whom is disabled, also came to Canada.

"I feel this is home. I feel this is my country," says Sowsan.

Reemas, 6, with her sister Aya, 8, have become good friends with Beatrix, the daughter of a member of their sponsor group. Aya says her favourite part of Canada is skating. (Willow Smith/CBC)

And they celebrated the first year in Canada with the arrival of the family's first Canadian citizen. They welcomed the newest member of the family: baby girl, Scham, born Dec. 13. Both mom and baby are doing well. 

Bshara AlKoury 

Bshara AlKoury, 32, is a single man who fled the war in Damascus and ended up in Lebanon for a year before being accepted by Canada as a refugee. (Courtesy of Bshara AlKhoury)

Bshara AlKoury settled in Calgary with the help of a local church, which pays for his $900-a-month apartment, a tidy one bedroom with sparse furnisings — but that changes in January.

"The church helped me with some money. Because when you come as a refugee you come with zero money," he says.

"Before the civil war in Syria when I was in my childhood I have dream to go to Canada."  Now, he calls Canada home.

Bshara AlKhoury with classmates from his English class. (Courtesy of Bshara AlKhoury)

Bshara has spent the past year looking for work, without luck, and has focused on learning English over the past few months. He's also starting an electrician course at The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). 

"It's difficult for newcomers because everything in Canada is different than the Middle East."

Dolat Elellus, Ahmed Elfecir and their sons call Ottawa home

Dolat Elellus and her husband Ahmed Elfecir say they love their new life in Ottawa, but still worry about family back in Syria. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Dolat Elellus and her family are from Homs, Syria. Dolat, her husband, their four young sons, and her mother-in-law live in a three-bedroom unit in a building on Donald Street in Ottawa.

Murhaf, Yahya, Mustafa and Omer Elfecir are beginning to pick up English in school. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

About 90 other Syrian refugees live in that highrise. 

"For us, it's good but for the language it's not good," says Dolat.

"It's important for our life in the future — the language is very important," she says on having Syrians to talk to in a language she understands.

They've been in Ottawa since April of last year and are taking English classes at a local school. 


A woman standing outside, looking at the camera
In Syria, Aya worked as both an English teacher and a makeup artist. But despite her good English skills, she found it hard to navigate the Canadian system and find work. (Elizabeth Hoath/CBC)

Aya, 27, has been living in Canada for more than 6 months.  It's been a a half year filled with challenges.

"Inside me, I couldn't feel safe in the first month. Everything is strange. I was totally depressed."

At one point, Aya told her sister she wanted to go back to Aleppo.

"I just imagined that if I fell down in the street — who can come pick me up or help me because I don't know anyone. It was so hard."

Aya came to Canada alone but a couple months after she arrived in Vancouver, her mother and sister joined her.

Now Aya lives with her sister who has lived in Canada for 25 years and who sponsored her family.  Her sister's husband and twins live in a small house designed for four people that now accommodates all seven of them.

"It's a challenge — it's hard."

But when she thinks of the people living in camps or "dying on the road," Aya says living here is "heaven."

In December, she started a job at a makeup counter and plans to volunteer at Mosaic, a settlement agency, as a teaching assistant in the new year. It was Mosaic that helped Aya navigate the Canadian system and offered both assistance and friendship.

"I feel great now. Now, I can start thinking about my future and what I should do here because I have a plan." 

CBC removed Aya's surname after publication of this article because of what she described as ongoing discrimination.

Listen to all the stories of the Syrian refugee families with checked in with at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Liz Hoath and Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.