Minutes after her 25-hour flight touched down in Toronto, Shoruk Alsakni burst into tears.
Some four years earlier, she – along with her husband, mother-in-law and six children – had fled the growing violence and terror of Aleppo, ending up in Turkey. Now the family was again starting over – this time in a country she knew almost nothing about.
“I was afraid of everything,” Alsakni said. “I was scared for my children. I didn’t know anyone in Canada.”
Her family was among the 35,745 Syrian refugees brought into Canada in the past year, in what now ranks as one of the largest refugee resettlement movements in Canadian history.
Canada had previously granted asylum to a small number of Syrian refugees. But one year ago this week, 163 Syrian refugees were greeted at the airport by Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, in scenes that contrasted sharply with the hostile rhetoric emanating from some US politicians, including then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Thousands more refugees would arrive in Canada the following months, supported either by the federal government or by private citizens who committed to covering their expenses for their first year in Canada.
For Alsakni’s family, trepidation surrounds the one-year anniversary. Since arriving last February as government-assisted refugees, the family has managed to find affordable housing and has fallen in love with their new home country. All of the children are in school and have thrown themselves into their new lives, trying out ice skating and carving a pumpkin for Halloween.
All of them feel incredibly lucky, Alsakni said, pointing to generous neighbours who have helped them navigate their new country and a healthcare system that has helped her fully recover from a bout of cancer that began before the war in Syria erupted.
But the one-year mark means an end to the monthly living allowance from the government that has, along with food banks and donations, sustained their new lives. From February onwards, the family must either support themselves – a seemingly monumental task considering the parents’ search for jobs have so far been fruitless – or enroll in the province’s social assistance program, in which they would likely receive less of an allowance than what they’re currently receiving.
“All the Syrians say the same thing, we’re worried about what happens after one year. We don’t know. With no stipend, how are we going to live?” Alsakni said through a translator. “It’s like we’re blindfolded. We don’t know what is coming.”
Her and husband’s job search has been hampered by their limited English skills. Alsakni began language classes some five months ago, doing her best to share everything she learns with her husband, who stays at home to look after his sickly mother.
The only solution, Alsakni said, is to encourage her three older children, who range in age from 17 to 20 and have a relatively high level of English, to focus on finding jobs.
But it’s a solution that stands to jeopardise what ranks as one of the family’s proudest accomplishments in Canada so far – having all their children in school. “It’s hard,” Alsakni said. “My first dream is for my children to complete their education and to live in safety.”
Across Canada, thousands of Syrian refugees are facing the same dilemma. Settlement agencies have launched workshops to help them cope with the anxiety, while others have taken aim at the federal government for turning its back on refugees as they struggle to find work and learn English or French.
“If you help them, you help them to the end,” Canadian senator Thanh Hai Ngo – who arrived in Canada as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 – told reporters this week. “You don’t leave them in the middle of the street and say, ‘OK, that’s it, I’ve done my job.’”
The result is the provinces and municipalities shoulder much of the tough work of integration, said Michael Qaqish, an Ottawa city councillor who serves as the city’s refugee liaison. “There’s no question there’s a bit more pressure on the schools, on the community resource centres, on the food banks.”
Some 1,700 or so refugees have settled in Ottawa, with 60% of them younger than 14. The federal government’s focus on bringing the most vulnerable refugees to Canada means many of those who arrived don’t speak any English while a good number don’t read or write Arabic, Qaqish said.
Justin Trudeau helps a young Syrian refugee try on a winter coat after she arrived with her family from Beirut.
Justin Trudeau helps a young Syrian refugee try on a winter coat after she arrived with her family from Beirut. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters
Many of them, however, have valuable skills that are in demand across the country, in sectors ranging from agriculture to trades. “We’ll see the rewards of this in the long term,” he said, describing it as “short-term pain for long-term gain”.
Much of the worry around the one-year mark centers around finding jobs, said Sam Jisri of Syrian Active Volunteers, an Ontario group launched to help Syrian refugees settle into their new lives in Canada. While more than half of the privately sponsored Syrians who arrived in the past year have found employment – working in grocery stores, coffee shops or launching their own small businesses – data collected by the federal government suggest the employment rate among government-assisted refugees hovers around 12%.
Language remains the primary obstacle. Some 60% of Syrian refugees in Canada don’t speak English or French, according to data from the federal government. “How can someone work without learning English?” Jisri asked.
The situation leaves many refugees facing a question that could have serious implications for long-term integration, he said. “Do they learn English or work?”
It’s a debate that has been exacerbated by a dearth of federal funding for language classes across the country. In the province of British Columbia, 5,000 people – refugees and immigrants from around the world – are currently on waitlists for English courses.
John McCallum, Canada’s minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship, said the government has increased funding for language training to address shortages across the country. After the one-year mark, refugees will still have access to language classes and employment-related support services, he added.
Canada’s ambitious project to settle tens of thousands of refugees, while not perfect, has gone extremely well, he said in an interview. “And what makes me proud is not just that we got the job done, which we did – but there is still more to do – but really that if you compare Canada with other countries around the globe which are tending to close their doors to refugees, Canadians responded so overwhelmingly positively to the refugees.”
The program has become a Canadian success story, providing an alternative blueprint on how a western country can respond to a refugee crisis that ranks among the worst since the second world war, a Canadian senate committee on human rights said this week.
But Canadians must not become complacent, it warned. “We can’t abandon them. This is a particularly crucial time for the Syrian refugees we have welcomed to Canada,” said committee chair Jim Munson. “We want more for these families than to see them living along the poverty line and going to food banks. No refugee, or any Canadian for that matter, should have to choose between feeding the family well and paying for their rent.”
The committee also raised concerns about the mental health provisions being made for the refugees. The years of trauma – fleeing the horrors of a civil war in their home country and living in refugee camps – have left some battling post traumatic stress disorder.
Others have seen their mental well being take a hit as they grapple with guilt over family members left behind, said Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of BC. “It really has a lot of folks on edge.”
But these are manageable issues, he said. “Settlement and integration indicators all point to the fact that Syrians are well on their way as far as socially and economically integrating,” he said. “Where other countries turned their back on them, there is a lot of gratitude from the community that we’re constantly hearing around the one-year anniversary.”
The point was emphasised in a survey his organisation recently carried out among 301 newly settled families in the region. The last question was an open-ended one, inviting families to add anything else they thought was relevant. More than 85% used the space to simply state, “thank you”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Alsakni in Toronto. “So many people have been so kind to us.” Sitting next to her in their sparsely decorated family room, her husband, Abdullmunim Nanaa chimed in. Nobody here treats us like we’re outsiders, he said. “I wish the best for this country. They opened the door to us,” he added. “You don’t have to worry about waking up to bombs and wondering what’s happening. It’s safe.”
Alsakni nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “I was surprised when Canada opened the door. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and many other countries were closing everything,” she said. “When Canada opened the door, I said now I have the opportunity to take treatment and for my children to complete their education. Canada has done so many good things for us.”