For a moment, the fogged windows, which temporarily blurred the distinctly North American suburban view, allowed me to forget where I was. Smiling down on all who walked into the Laval apartment, photos of a beautiful young bride on her wedding day hung on the wall of the dimly lit living room decorated in the typical fashion of an upper-middle class Arab. Those who have spent at least a bit of time in the countries hugging the eastern Mediterranean would surely receive a sense of déjà vu. Jassem Al Dandashi, who clearly brought a bit of home with him, sat in his armchair by the window and calmly launched into an epic monologue on his own accord.
One of the first Syrian refugee families of the current crisis who were sponsored by the Canadian government, Jassem moved to Canada with his wife and three sons this June, sponsored by the Canadian government. He and his wife live together in an apartment just off the island of Montreal, which their sponsor helped them find. Also arriving in June, Eiad Herrera and his newlywed wife moved here a month after the rest of his family arrived in Canada. Unlike the Dandashis, the Herreras are being given support by a sponsorship agreement holder, a private organization. While the two families are very different in terms of size, age, and religion – the Herreras being a young Christian couple without children from Syria’s capital Damascus, and the Dandashis a large Muslim family from the western city of Homs – the same sentiments seemed to be shared when asked about what it’s like living in Canada. The response was, “I feel like I’m human.”
The Canadian government has agreed to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, following a call by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for countries to take in 30,000 Syrians by the end of 2014, the majority of whom are to be privately sponsored by sponsorship agreement holders (SAH). SAHs are usually religious, ethnic, service, or community organizations. As of this year, there are 85 such groups that received SAH status from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 72 per cent of which are associated with churches. These groups submit sponsorship applications to the government on behalf of refugees, and once the immigration order is approved, help support the integration and financial needs of the refugee. The government has committed to supporting 200 of the most vulnerable individuals, specified as children, religious minorities, homosexual people, and women facing sexual assault.
The government, however, has come up against heavy criticism by refugee advocates. The federal budget cuts to refugee health care and long bureaucratic delays in the handling of applications, are among the issues severely affecting SAHs ability to function. The system in place is inefficient and leads to a lengthy period for the processing of a sponsorship application. Previously, refugees and asylum seekers were covered by the Interim Federal Health Program, until they qualified for provincial coverage. Now that cuts have been made to this program, the SAHs are liable for the care of the parties they sponsor. The report claims, “Approximately one-third of church-connected SAHs (32 per cent) report that their sponsoring groups have decreased or ended their involvement in the program as a result of the added liability for health costs.”
Additionally, the Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander has been accused of not being transparent enough when responding to the question of how many Syrian refugees have arrived in the country since the Ministry’s promise to resettle 1,300. In a radio interview with CBC’s As It Happens host Carol Off, he stated that 1,150 Syrians “have received Canada’s protection,” but flat-out refused to answer precisely how many have actually arrived in Canada. Some refugee advocates go further, claiming that the stated 1,150 does not solely consist of those who have fled to countries neighbouring Syria and still face harsh conditions, but includes Syrian students and tourists who were already in Canada.
In the past, Canada has been hailed internationally for opening its doors to those persecuted or fearing persecution. The SAH program itself was founded as a Canadian response to the 1978 Southeast Asian ‘boat people’ crisis. However, figures show that 2012 saw a 14-year low in the number of refugees resettled in Canada. Despite this obvious regression when it comes to providing a safe space, the government in Ottawa continues to proudly advertise its track record, having taken in one of every ten resettled refugees worldwide. The United Nations Refugee Agency released a statement earlier this year that said it wishes to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2016. If Canada would like to continue this trend, that would mean taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
Eiad Herrera was a journalism student at the University of Damascus, completing the third year of his undergraduate degree when the unrest began in 2011. Spending most of his time after high school living between both Dubai and Syria, Eiad said he knew he had to permanently leave his home country when the revolution began what he classified as the second phase, or the “armed revolution.”
In Arabic, Eiad described his second-to-last class lecture at the University of Damascus.
“There were battles around the university, bombing here, bombing there, and your desk shaking […] And you can hear nearby the sound of shooting […] you can see the military and the intelligence members checking the people, checking the students. […] It was so stressful and scary. You could see the smoke in the sky. That was the last day.” He left for the relative safety of Lebanon the next day.
Before leaving Syria, in what he calls the “first stage of the revolution” – or the peaceful demonstration part – Jassem says he participated in journalistic activities under a pseudonym. This was his way of rejecting the “lies and propaganda” propagated by the state’s news medium, which he says is not actually media, but “play.”
He describes the protesters as willing to put their lives on the line for their cause, saying, “[The protester] is going to die and he knows.” All the same, he said he was proud of them, because of the courage it takes to go up against the the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Ever since their coming to power over forty years ago, Eiad says nobody had any freedom of speech, illustrating it through a Syrian analogy: where nobody can ever open their mouths unless they are at the dentist’s clinic.
Podcast: A conversation with Eiad Herrera
The final straw for the Dandashis was following the detainment of their eldest son, Mohammed. Mohammed, who is described as “liking freedom” by his father, was picked up by the Syrian government army and kept in a military prison for forty days. Never coming back from university, the family did not know his whereabouts for 25 days.
“It was very difficult for us […] I didn’t sleep, I don’t think,” said Jassem. Finally, Mohammed managed to send word about his condition and location through a fellow detainee that was released. “At that time I was very afraid for my life,” explained Jassem, who shortly after his son’s release had his family leave their home in Syria and cross the nearby border into Lebanon.
The Dandashis spent the next two years living on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria in the province of Akkar. Living on the border town of Mashta Hammoud, Jassem said, “Every day for the two years we were there, they [the Syrian army] fired on us […] in Lebanese territory.” Despite this, Jassem said arriving safely in Lebanon “felt like heaven. Of course after we left to Lebanon, [the government] robbed our house, emptying every room, except for my library.”
Like many of the other 1.5 million Syrians (1.1 million registered with UNHCR, and another estimated 500,000 unregistered Syrians) taking refuge in the neighbouring country, the family had few occupational prospects in Lebanon, and continued to face danger and hardships.
The population of this coastal country skyrocketed in the last three years with the influx of over a million documented Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands more undocumented ones. As is, only around four million Lebanese live in Lebanon. This increase in the country’s population has put significant strain on public institutions, such as the education and health systems. Many lower-to-middle class Lebanese are also unable to find jobs, as employers can hire Syrians for lower wages. As Eiad puts it, “Syrians cannot do anything in Lebanon. They are only [there because they are] running away from the war in Syria.”
“I will not forget the moment when they called us to the flight on [May 29, 2014]. It opened up a lot of doors for the family, especially for the children’s education. We are very happy, because we are the first Syrian refugee family to immigrate to Canada [since the start of the uprising], sponsored by the government,” exclaimed Jassem.
Customary to resettlement, the travel was planned for them and paid for. Jassem says after receiving their acceptance, the move and integration into Canada was smooth, with people helping them at every step of the way. The family was met at the airport by government workers, who drove them, their ten suitcases, and five carry-on bags to a hotel where they stayed for ten days at the expense of the Canadian government. During these days the family was helped by a government worker who was fluent in Arabic with the paperwork needed for a social insurance number, health insurance, registering in school, and finding furnishing for their apartment. The family will be supported until they become self-sufficient. In the meantime, the Dandashis study French at Montmorency College in Montreal.
Mohammed, who was in his third year of university in Syria studying architecture, was unable to complete his degree because he had to flee the country. The same goes for his brother, Jawad, who spent a year in business school in Lebanon prior to arriving in Canada.
Flipping between Al Jazeera Arabic and a soccer match on the television, Jawad described being so cold at school the day before and not being able to move his hands. “Isn’t it only September?” he exclaimed.
They told me they both hope to improve their English and French enough to finish their schooling at McGill or Concordia. “I will challenge myself to learn French, just only to express my thanks and my gratitude to Canadian people and Canadian government […] because you are [improving opportunities] for my family,” Jassem said.
Eiad is also taking the required French courses at Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne. He too wants to finish his degree, but he says he must improve his English to do so because of his plan to study journalism at Concordia. “I am thirty years old and I feel I lost a lot of things. I feel I should be here from fifteen years ago, maybe from the beginning,” says Eiad, who said he feels a heavy burden to catch up.
In Canada, Syrian refugees are still affected by the ongoing civil war in their home country. Eiad, who calls and Skypes with his friends and cousins every day, said he felt his correspondents are scared to articulate over the line what is happening to them and the country around them.
“They don’t need to tell the state of affairs in Syria. No need to tell me, because I can hear what is happening there. Actually you hear the sounds of the fighter planes, and you can the rockets […] you can hear the bombing.”
When asked if they think they will ever go back to Syria, both Jassem and Eiad had the same response. “Under this regime, no,” says Eiad, referring to Bashar al-Assad’s government. Each family said they could possibly visit after they have settled down, if there is peace back home and the Assad regime is no longer in power.
Currently, Mohammed Dandashi would need to face trial for opposing the regime if he returned. Nonetheless, both families are hopeful of their new start. Eiad described Canada as his “second homeland.”
Unfortunately, the Dandashis and Herreras are not the typical story. The Syrian revolution, which has broken out into a full-out civil war and caused the exodus of the country’s people, is continuing into its third year. Two and a half million Syrians are in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, often in semi-permanent refugee camps, as the host countries cannot afford, do not have the infrastructure for, and do not want to fully resettle them themselves. Despite this astronomical number, the West is falling behind on its promises to provide safe havens to these people. The Dandashis and Herreras will be the among the anomalies that do not apply to Syria’s lost generation.