Shortly after midnight on 31 December 2015, Iman and Zaher Ahmad* and their two young daughters arrived at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada after a 14-hour flight from Beirut.
They didn’t speak English. Not a word. There was confusion as they were moved into lines with other Syrians to be processed by immigration officials at Canada’s largest airport.
Their only possessions – other than their documents – were parka coats, winter boots, and teddy bears issued by Canadian officials.
They were put on a bus and taken to a hotel to sleep, then awoken by strangers a few hours later and told they must return to the airport for the final leg of their journey to a place called Ottawa. They didn’t know where it was, only that they were going there.
After a problem with their documents that delayed them for 12 hours, the family finally arrived at Ottawa’s much smaller airport that evening, unsure of their next move.
Peering down from the top of an escalator overlooking the baggage carousels, Zaher saw their names on a sign in Arabic and a big group of people who began crying, waving, and cheering as they slowly approached. The 38 people turned out to be the family’s sponsoring group who had come to welcome the Ahmads to their new home.
Last September, the image of a dead Syrian toddler lying facedown on a beach in Turkey triggered a massive response from the Canadian public, propelling a relatively unknown 37-year-old refugee sponsorship programme into the spotlight.
In the autumn, a newly elected Canadian government made good on an election promise to boost the number of Syrians resettled to Canada. Of the 25,000 Syrian refugees brought to Canada in the first two months of 2016, nearly half had been privately sponsored by groups of Canadians like the one that welcomed Iman and Zaher.
While Europe shored up its borders in the wake of record arrivals of refugees and terrorist attacks in 2015 and racist rhetoric became a feature of US presidential campaign, the Canadian government struggled to find and screen sufficient numbers of eligible refugees to meet the demand of willing, welcoming sponsors.
“The public interest in getting involved was unprecedented,” says Leslie Emory, executive director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, which helps link immigrants and refugees with settlement services. “Although we have a very robust settlement sector within the city of Ottawa, we’ve never had this rate of arrivals: so many people over such a short time.”
When an end to the Syrian sponsorship programme was announced in March, the resulting public outcry triggered a reversal in policy. The Canadian government announced it would extend the programme until the end of 2016 and resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees. Another 8,000 refugees from elsewhere in the world will be privately sponsored to come to Canada by the end of this year.
According to Emory, privately sponsored refugees have a better chance of early and successful integration. A government evaluation has shown that privately sponsored refugees acquire language skills more quickly, enter the workforce sooner and have better health outcomes than government-assisted refugees.
“Privately sponsored refugees have an on-the-ground family here,” explains Emory. “They have an entire group preparing for them specifically, anticipating their needs, setting up a home before they arrive.”
It’s six months since Iman and Zaher’s arrival. Laughter echoes from the open, second-storey window of their small duplex, not far from downtown Ottawa.
The family is celebrating Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Ramadan fast, with four of their Canadian sponsors. Among them is Jacqueline Couture, who slips a fistful of coins into their daughters’ hands. “Eid Mubarak!” she says.
Sponsors Henri Bagdadi and wife Suzanne Defoy entertain six-year-old Mays and four-year-old Dahab with jokes and stories. The two girls excitedly share news – using a mix of Arabic and English – about spending the day at a massive conference facility near the airport, which hosted Eid festivities for more than 15,000 Muslims and their friends.
“In Lebanon, Eid is a small affair,” says Iman. “Here it was big and very exciting with people from many countries.” It’s just one of the cultural adjustments Iman says she has made as a new Canadian.
Deidre Kelly, another sponsor, arrives and reaches out her arms to the girls: “Are we ready to go play at the park?”
For Iman, Zaher, and the girls, their sponsoring group has become the equivalent of their extended family in Canada. But friendships between refugees and their sponsors don’t always develop. Training programmes offered to would-be sponsors tell them not to expect too much, and warn Canadians against imposing their own cultural norms on the families.
Not all plain sailing
In Guelph, a city in southwestern Ontario, sponsor Renee Fleming is among a group of 16 people who raised money to sponsor a family of four from Syria. After a heart-warming welcoming event in January, the new arrivals made it clear they didn’t want to be friends, and craved their independence.
The Canadian press has reported other incidents of personal and cultural clashes between sponsors and refugee families. Some new arrivals have expressed disappointment that Canada is so remote. Fleming notes that the family they’re helping has complained that the primary school system is “not strict enough”. Canada’s liberal approach to social issues – women’s rights and homosexuality, for example – often fall in stark contrast to the religious and cultural norms of the Syrians.
Although the relationship between Iman and Zaher and their sponsors has flourished from the evening they brought the family home to a small, ready-furnished apartment in central Ottawa, Kelly admits it has required a delicate balance to offer support without intruding.
“The way people manage money is kind of an intimate thing,” Kelly says. “There’s a whole power dynamic, where we have all the power. We decided off the bat to give them money monthly and let them decide how to budget it themselves.”
A tough start
Kelly says the first few weeks following the family’s arrival were challenging. The day after the New Year’s holiday, Kelly took Iman to a clinic for something that required “immediate medical attention”. The same week, Zaher needed to see an optometrist. Before the girls could be registered for school, there were a series of medical check-ups and vaccinations to be done. Dahab also had to have major dental surgery.
Two weeks after their arrival, the sponsoring group, many of whom are French-Canadian, registered the girls in a French immersion programme at a public school where they receive half-day instruction in both of Canada’s two official languages (English and French).
Kelly says she doesn’t know how government-assisted refugees navigate the many hurdles of settling into their new lives in Canada, from banking to understanding the public health system.
“I’m from a very middle-class background, and there are so many things I’ve taken for granted,” says Kelly, who appointed herself the group member in charge of health matters. “It’s been a really eye-opening experience.”
The group has found doctors, dentists, pharmacies, and childcare facilities within walking distance, all offering services in Arabic, which is the third most spoken language in Ottawa.
Sponsors are expected to help families become self-sustaining, so they can survive independently following the initial 12-month support period.
Iman and Zaher spend their days studying English. In the evenings, “I study more”, says Iman. She has already attained a level of English that means she can register for college in September. Zaher hopes to soon start work at a local landscaping company.
The sun is getting low and Eid al-Fitr is coming to an end. Mays is pedalling her little sister’s blue-and-pink bicycle in the local playpark, frequently stopping to offer wild flowers to her sponsors. She’s told it’s time to go home to get ready for bed.
“Not yet. I’m not ready,” insists Mays. She holds up two fingers and says in perfect French, “Attends! Deux minutes.” The group laughs at her easy ability to switch between languages.
“I feel so lucky there was a group waiting for us,” Iman says. “They are so nice. Whenever we need something, they come.
“They make me feel Canada is my country now.”
*Last name has been changed