Refugees at the door

Updated January 03, 2016


A rally in Vancouver
A rally in Vancouver

“Believe me, I am the luckiest guy in the world to be here right now,” says Wajeeh Safiea, 33. “I am so thankful to God and to Canada for this second chance to live a normal life. Some mornings I wake up thinking that I am in a dream. In Syria, in that stupid war, everyone is fighting everyone and the regime of Bashar Assad forces all men to join the army. There are no options; no choices.”

Wajeeh is one of the 25,000 Syrian refugees who will arrive in Canada by the end of February 2016.

Thanks to a private sponsor, he landed in Halifax in May of this year and three weeks later moved to Calgary where his cousins reside. He enrolled in Bow Valley College to improve his English skills and three months later this electrical engineer managed to land a job. A more jubilant taxpayer will be hard to find: “Now I am free; I can talk to you, I have a job and I am paying taxes to Canada. I am so glad to say that I am already giving back to this country in return for the opportunity it has provided me. I am ready to work very hard to live a peaceful, normal life and to have a family in this free country.”

Wajeeh spent four years “doing nothing” in Amman, Jordan where his sister lived with her husband. “I can honestly say that the Jordanian people really love Syrians. They welcomed the refugees and helped them in many ways. The same is the case with the Turkish and Lebanese; Turkey has done a lot to support the refugees. But the reality is that when a guest stays for a long, long, long time the host feels the burden. There used to be thousands of Syrian refugees in those countries, but now there are millions.

There are just too many people. And their economies are barely strong enough to sustain their own people. In fact Lebanese people are spread all over the world because they are always leaving to look for jobs.

Unlike several other Western countries, there is steady and widespread support all across Canada for the resettlement of Syrians escaping the civil war

For four years I was not able to work. There are simply not enough jobs and many Syrian professionals were desperate like me. I was very fortunate to have my sister there and to live in her house. I am so thankful that I was not living in a camp. When I think of the people in some of the camps I want to cry. You cannot imagine the situation. It is really terrible — children walking under the very hot sun, holding empty water bottles in their little hands. Fathers died and mothers are struggling to somehow survive. It is really, really unbelievable.”

Chi Diep knows something about living in refugee camps. Before she came to Canada in 1979, as part of the historic resettlement of 50,000 Vietnamese fleeing the communist regime, eight-year-old Chi had lived in three refugee camps in Indonesia.

“We were desperate to find a country that would accept us. The American government gave priority to those who had helped their army, Australia wanted farmers, and the Canadian government wanted professionals who were bilingual in French and English. My father was none of those. But we were very fortunate that a church group in Port Perry, Canada offered to sponsor us. Their community had collected enough money to pay for our trip, they gave us a two-bedroom apartment to live, enrolled the children in school, and took my mother to buy groceries once a week.”

Arabic and English signs being put up at the Toronto airport
Arabic and English signs being put up at the Toronto airport

“You are home,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the first planeload of government-sponsored Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Dec 10, “You’re safe at home now.” Their documents are being processed upon arrival so that they leave the airport terminal as permanent residents with health insurance cards in hand. And temporary signage in both English and Arabic has been posted at airports in various cities to help the refugees find their way around. A particularly touching scene took place at Calgary’s airport in which members of Canada’s First Nations greeted the new Canadians with a traditional welcome ceremony.

In stark contrast to its southern neighbour, there is strong support across Canada for the resettlement of Syrians escaping the civil war. “Refugees Welcome” is emblazoned on banners and over social media; Toronto Star, the most widely-read daily newspaper in the country dedicated its entire front page to welcome the newcomers on Dec 10; and an Ottawa children’s choir made headlines around the world when it sang the traditional Arabic song Tala al-Badru Alyana at their Christmas concert — the same song with which the Ansar of Madinah welcomed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when he arrived as a refugee from Makkah.

Mosques, churches and synagogues have played a crucial role in the private sponsorship of refugee families. Vancouver’s Temple Sholom collected $40,000 to bring a family of four and support them for a year, and in Toronto board members of Congregation Darchei Noam unanimously voted to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of five to immigrate to Canada. The Dorval Mosque has put forth enough funds to sponsor five families, while the Al-Hidaya Mosque in Port Coquitlam is spearheading the effort to help 25 refugee families to settle in the region.

Brian and Philomena Logel with Emad Al-Haj Ali, his wife Razan, and their children Fatima and Mohammed
Brian and Philomena Logel with Emad Al-Haj Ali, his wife Razan, and their children Fatima and Mohammed

Muslims and Mennonites (Christians) in Edmonton are working together to reunite over 150 refugees with relatives already residing in the city. In Orangeville, congregants at Westminster United Church contributed funds to bring Emad Al-Haj Ali, his wife Razan, and their children Fatima and Mohammed out of the war zone. Group leader Brian Logel and his wife, Philomena housed the Muslim family in their own house for the first few weeks and included them in their family’s Christmas celebrations. No ham or bacon will be served this year, Philomena said, halal turkey will be on the holiday menu instead.

It is sad to note that while these endless examples of generosity and inclusivity towards a minority group are taking place in Canada, the mistreatment of minorities is making headlines in Pakistan. A Lahore store owner felt no compunction in posting a sign to prohibit the entry of Ahmadis, while in Islamabad the Capital Development Authority (CDA) had the audacity to deflect criticism for its slum demolition drive by claiming that they were afraid of the effect that the slum’s Christian population would have on “the Muslim majority of the capital”. Justice Qazi Isa of the Supreme Court rightfully declared CDA the “worst run organisation in the world”.

Haider Abdullah, however, is determined to do his best to help fellow humans around the world. Born and raised in Toronto by parents who emigrated from Pakistan, 31-year-old Haider set up a toy drive in the gym of his old high school to collect toys, clothes and household items — “things you would want for your own children” — to give to Syrian refugees. “When my parents came here from Karachi they also needed help to settle, we know how it feels to start a new life in a new country. In my age group, among my Muslim and non-Muslim friends, there is overwhelming support for refugees. Right now in this gym people from all backgrounds have come with bags full of donations. No one is saying ‘Oh we already pay taxes so the government should help them’. I believe that everyone is looking for opportunities to help those who are in need. Every time I have gone out to collect funds, whether it’s for earthquake victims in Haiti or flood victims in Pakistan, people step up and give. Right now we are using the hashtag #families4hope to help Canadian-registered charity IDRF ( collect $27,000 to sponsor a Syrian family. It is a great time to be a Canadian.”

Haider notes that some people have commented that the Syrian refugees who have arrived thus far are not the ones we see on TV screens, the impoverished camp dwellers who are most in need. A majority of the new Canadians are well-dressed and well-educated professionals who had fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and applied to Canadian embassies for refugee status. “Honestly, I think this is a good thing,” he says. “It will be easier for this group to adjust in Canada; there will be less friction and fewer burdens on the system this way. Once these professionals begin to contribute to Canadian society and economy in a meaningful way, it will help to keep the door open for more refugees to come in. We do hope that the process will continue.”

Minister of Refugees and Immigration John McCallum has, in fact, announced that he hopes to see a further 25,000 Syrian refugees settle by the end of 2016. Syrians who like Wajeeh are passionate about Canada and excited for their future here.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 3rd, 2016