This week’s guest blog is written by Rachel Clements, student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She attended the Ottawa Office annual student seminar in February called “Refuge. Asylum. Displacement. Canada’s response.”
Amal’s eyes are dark like the depths of the ocean she crossed to get here, but they light up exquisitely when she sees me enter the room.
“Rashelle!” she calls out, greeting me by my name in Arabic. It’s Saturday night, and I am visiting the hotel that serves as a temporary home to over 300 Syrians until they are able to find housing. Every night, a local organization runs ESL classes for the children at the hotel, but the excitement in the room makes me suspect that I will be doing all the learning tonight.
“Taa’li hon!” Amal beckons me to over to where her family is seated, and our attention shifts to the front of the room where a dozen men in traditional Syrian clothes perform zaffe, an Arab musical procession with drums and singing usually performed at weddings.
The room descends into what I can only describe as joyful chaos. The adults present are far outnumbered by the children who restlessly parade around the room; some with younger children toted on the shoulders of older siblings, some daring to dance in the middle of the chanting men. The women in the room respond with high-pitched tongue trilling, known as zalghouta, which is used to express the joy of the moment.
Amal places her younger brother, Hassan, in my lap as she gets up to join in the dancing. Hassan’s hands settle into mine, and Amal’s mother smiles at me through warm eyes. For some reason, I did not expect people fleeing war to be so open and inviting. But this was my ignorance. They had more joy to share than I.
From February 18-20, I was privileged to attend a three-day student seminar hosted by MCC’s Ottawa Office, focused on Canada’s response to refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons. The seminar afforded us the opportunity to hear from several politicians, civil servants, MCC staff, and NGO representatives currently involved in Canada’s resettlement efforts. A large focus of the seminar was on the newly-arrived Syrians within Canada.
During MCC’s seminar, Jenny Kwan, MP of East Vancouver and NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, addressed some valuable concerns that Syrians face as they integrate into Canada. Kwan expressed concern that while the government is focused on meeting numbers, the capacity on the ground to receive the newcomers is deficient, and resources are not being used to their full potential.
A problem arises from governmental policy whereby funding is granted only to NGO’s that have been involved with resettlement efforts in the past. While these NGO’s are overburdened and running at full capacity, other NGO’s and community groups are willing to help out but are unable to receive funding. Without the mobilization of all our resources, integration into Canadian society is proving to be a painful and slow moving process. Month-long wait-lists for adult ESL classes mean that language continues to be a barrier to integration, and many Syrians feel socially isolated and unable to articulate their needs.
Kwan called to attention the importance of community and familiarity for refugees. Though privately sponsored refugees arrive to be welcomed into a community of support, government sponsored refugees are often more vulnerable without a community to assist them in settling. They must rely on income assistance alone, and have difficulty finding affordable housing and access to medical care. Additionally, most school systems don’t have the infrastructure in place to accommodate for the arrival of the Syrian children. The language needs as well as trauma and therapy needs of these children must be addressed, otherwise Canada risks facing large fallout down the road.
In light of these issues desperately needing to be addressed, what can we do to help?
Kwan suggested Canadians should remain true to our identity of generosity and openness to others. Canadian citizens can fill the gaps in the integration process by contacting resettlement agencies and offering volunteer assistance. Many communities are beginning family match programs, where Canadian families are matched with Syrian families to act as a point of reference and support throughout the process of integration.
Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party, said Canada’s resettlement process has been slow in the past and is in great need of rebuilding. May called upon us to be patient with the new government as it rebuilds and begins to mobilize.
May also expressed great confidence in the federal Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, who has been mandated to look after long-term resources for refugees addressing matters such as PTSD, mental health, and isolation. These needs will continue to be addressed long after the refugees have settled into Canada. But in the meantime, May urged us in the same way that Kwan did, to be gracious and generous hosts. Befriending and becoming a stable, long-term friend to one Canadian newcomer can do more to ease trauma and mental health concerns than several clinical appointments can.
Heeding the advice of many of the speakers at the seminar, I now spend three nights a week at the hotel, trying to engage and connect with the Syrian children as they wait for permanent housing. Amal and I have built a friendship based on shared lessons in English and Arabic. She now affectionately refers to me as “Okhti,” meaning “Sister.” The name Amal in Arabic means hope, and in many ways, this is what she is to me.
These children teach me valuable lessons. Each day when I greet them saying, “Keifik?” meaning, “How are you?” the children respond, “Al-hamdulillah!” meaning, “Thanks be to God.” I have learned this word of gratitude is used in all cases, no matter how the person is feeling, because all of life, in its blessings and discomfort, is a gift from God.