by Janet Nicol
Canada made history one year ago, offering 25,000 Syrian refugees hope and peace in a new country. The first group of refugees landed in December 2015, with the remainder arriving over the following few months in cities across Canada. Among them was the Al Shanabani family, government-assisted refugees (GARS), who landed in Vancouver. They quickly found a home, signed up for English language lessons and found daycare facilities for their two daughters.
Lending them a helping hand in their journey has been another Syrian refugee — Mohammed Alsaleh.
“I have been living on the front line for the last two years,” Alsaleh says, “first as a refugee and then helping refugees.”
Alsaleh was among the first wave of 200 Syrians who came to Canada two years ago. Since last December, he has been employed as a settlement worker at ISSofBC Welcome Centre in Vancouver.
“I am so lucky to be in a position in which I can help people resettle in this country,” Alsaleh says. “However, it is very challenging.”
Mohammed Alsaleh has turned his own Syrian refugee journey into a career helping other refugees. Photo by Elton Hubner
The settlement journey
When Alsaleh first welcomed Nedal and Taghreed Al Shanabani in his office, he showed them a chart with a curved line. You will experience four stages, he told them — a honeymoon period, culture shock, adjustment and adaption.
“I make sure every family I work with knows about the curve,” Alsaleh says. “It’s normal. You need to make some adjustments to reach settlement. When people know this has been scientifically proven and everyone goes through this, they feel more comfortable. This gives motivation to adjust to settlement.”
For the Al Shanabanis, learning English has been the main goal. “The day-to-day language barrier is a challenge,” Nedal says. “I feel deaf as I hear words around me but don’t comprehend.”
Still, Canadians have made his family feel at home in many ways. “We have received an amazing welcome, by the government and at the public level.”
He is also grateful to his Canadian landlords, Sheldon and Eileen, and says Sheldon is assisting him with driving lessons.
When Al Shanabani lived in Syria, he was a farmer and a driver. “In time I would like to drive a truck or bus here,” he says.
Taghreed says she will also search for employment once she is more fluent in English. “I would love to work with children,” she says. She wants to make sure her daughters, Rimas, 3, and Reetaj, 1, have educational opportunities.
The Al Shanabani family came to Canada as government-assisted refugees from Syria last year. Photo by Elton Hubner
Hoping for Canada
Originally from Daraa, Syria, the family endured President al-Assad’s military attacks when soldiers began employing tanks, ground artillery and fighter jets against civilians. They escaped to Jordan six months later, along with extended family members. “The [refugee] camps were horrible,” Nedal says. “We had some savings and were able to rent a house.” They registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency along with millions of other displaced Syrians. Unable to seek employment because of refugee status, the Al Shanabanis became dependent on others for financial assistance.
Two years later, they received a call from the United Nations. “We felt so happy,” Nedal says about the offer to immigrate to Canada. “There was hope for a future for us and our children.”
Alsaleh understands his clients’ feeling of hope. He was in his fourth year of studies to become a doctor at a university in Homs, Syria, when his education was interrupted by the civil war.
“I had been doing my best to be vocal against human rights violations in Syria and I was documenting what was happening, taking videos and putting them online,” he says. “This resulted in my imprisonment and my torture by the Syrian dictatorship of Assad. After being released, I fled the country.”
Alsaleh adds: “I lost all hope. I was out of Syria, losing everything, starting without my family who were left behind, my education and my friends.”
Then he got his own phone call from the United Nations with an offer to immigrate to Canada.
“That single phone call made a difference in my life,” Alsaleh says. “It gave me hope again.”
On Nov. 25, 2014, he left Lebanon.
“I entered the airport as a refugee, but walked out of the terminal in Vancouver as a permanent resident of Canada,” Alsaleh says.
“The first conversation I had in English was at the Starbucks near the Welcome Centre.” He started working more on his English and looked into volunteering opportunities.
He volunteered at the free clinic run by ISSofBC to assist people with income taxes. “I was helping greet clients, showing them around and making sure their income tax was done,” he says. Alsaleh had only been in Canada for three months and it felt good to “give back” so soon.
“By volunteering I was able to make friends, to build my own network, and overcome so many barriers, such as culture shock and loneliness,” he says.
“When I came in 2014, there wasn’t a lot of awareness [about the Syrian crisis],” he says. “When people knew more about the plight of the Syrian people — when the picture of little Alan Kurdi appeared in September of 2015 — this changed everything. This small sad moment, which is a shame that humanity will carry forever — a three-year-old who drowned in the sea — it is really amazing how this has changed everything.”
Alsaleh’s advocacy for refugees is unrelenting. This September he helped organize a conference for 60 Syrian youth, aged 15 to 25, at the Welcome Centre to “amplify their voices.”
“We wanted to have an open free space for youth to come and connect with each other, share experiences and share the good things about their transition here to Canada,” he explains.
“They brainstormed together to get their recommendations out there and to make sure the next wave of young refugees have a better experience coming to Canada.”
Alsaleh says their main concerns are housing, education and English language training. “Also they had concerns about their financial situation because the government-assisted refugees are provided with allowances equivalent to the welfare rate, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. There is a struggle on that front.”
He said he has only just paid back his own government loan for transportation to Canada and medical test costs. This debt is another concern voiced by participants.
Alsaleh understands firsthand the emotional trauma refugees have experienced.
“This is something that should be highlighted,” he says, “the mental aspect of the settlement movement and the fact that we are dealing with a population that is so vulnerable and who have exceptional experiences with war, with violence, with so many unimaginably bad things. It is a key component of our work in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) support for our clients. We provide one-on-one counselling for refugees within the first week of their arrival.”
Because it is a sensitive issue, ISSofBC calls the counselling a “wellbeing” meeting. “We make sure that refugees know in their first week here, there is support. Someone is there to listen to their needs and anxiety when they are ready.”
The war has been going on for five years with no end in sight, a painful realization for Syrians now living in Canada.
“Prince William was here in the Welcome Centre,” Alsaleh says, recalling the British royal couple’s visit to British Columbia this past September. “He met with a Syrian family, and I had the honour of being the interpreter. He asked the Syrian family about what was happening (in Syria) and the scale of destruction. They shared with him that it doesn’t look promising.” The Prince asked Alsaleh for his opinion, too. “I shared with him the same sentiment. That it is very complicated and getting worse.”
More hope offered
Looking forward, about 1,500 government-assisted refugees, including Syrians, are expected to arrive in B.C. by the end of this December, most settling in Metro Vancouver. The federal government is also in the process of accepting Yazidi refugees living in Iraq who have been targeted by ISIL militants. The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority who used to live mainly in northern Iraq.
“Canada has a tradition in helping refugees,” Alsaleh says. “This is something we have witnessed in the 1970s with the Ismailis and in the 1980s with the Vietnamese. It is happening now with the Syrians. It is history in the making. It is Canadians practising their amazing tradition of offering hope.”
When Alsaleh was younger, he dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I wanted to become an oncologist because I lost two cousins to cancer in high school,” he says. “Now I am doing something as rewarding — helping people start over in Canada. This balances everything for me.”
Re-published from Canadian Immigrant magazine, December 2016 issue and available on line at