Syrian refugees new to B.C. seek fresh start

Majd Agha is in some ways a typical 22-year-old who has just arrived in Vancouver. He goes to college, has a part-time job, and takes English classes in the evening.

But Agha is facing a unique set of challenges. He is among the first group of Syrian refugees that Canada has finally got around to admitting two years after an original promise.

And he is one of only a handful who settled in Vancouver.

Agha is an exception.

The Canadian government granted him amnesty after he became caught in immigration limbo and was forced to live in Thailand’s Phuket international airport, an ordeal that lasted three months.

‘A frustrating experience’

Canada has faced widespread criticism for its restrictive policies towards Syrian refugees from both the United Nations and international aid organizations.

“Canada was not really committed to the pledge that they made towards letting in more refugees. That’s been a frustrating experience,” said Abdallah Khalifa, a resettlement assistance program counsellor at the Immigration Services Society of B.C.

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Agha is one of the few Syrian refugees in Vancouver.

Securing refugee status in Canada has been just one of the challenges.

Syrian refugees newly settled in B.C. are now finding that the struggle does not end once they begin their lives in Canada.

Khalifa noted that the lack of an established Syrian population can create additional challenges for refugees adjusting to life on the west coast.

“In Toronto and Montreal, the Arabic-speaking and Syrian communities are bigger than in B.C. So the community support is more available in those cities if you want to compare it to Vancouver.”

Majd says he has yet to encounter anyone from his home country.

“I haven’t met any Syrians here yet. I’ve met Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, but no Syrians, not at all.”

Many, like Agha, arrive without their families. They then face an uphill battle to bring them to Canada.

Majd remembers

 

Tough requirements

Canadian immigration law allows refugees to sponsor spouses and dependent children under the age of 19. However, individuals hoping to bring their parents and siblings must do so through Canada’s regular immigration stream.

Khalifa notes that most refugees trying to immigrate do not fulfill the necessary requirements.

As of mid-March 2015, Canada has only just filled its 2013 commitment to welcome 1,300 Syrian refugees. This includes refugees who arrived through private sponsorship, and those who traveled to Canada independently before applying for asylum.

Canadian government quotas state that B.C. should receive 10 per cent of all refugees arriving in Canada. According to Immigration Services Society of B.C., three Syrian families have arrived in B.C. since January 2015.

Canada has pledged to accept 10,000 more refugees from Syria, and suggested that up to 60 per cent could be privately sponsored.

It is unclear how long this will take, though the government says they are aiming to fulfill the pledge within the next three years.

Agha doesn’t reveal his story to most people, but says that those he has told have been more than welcoming.

“Everyone treats me like a normal person, which is how it should be.”