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On their own

After a year of government support, Syrian refugees are still struggling to settle in Toronto and face an uncertain future.

After school rush-hour at Leaside Towers in central-east Toronto is when the general rules of how many people can reasonably cram into an elevator are suspended.

Ahmad Al Rasoul, black hooded jacket straining over his belly, pulls in his shoulders, trying to take up as little room as possible. His three sons, sporting backpacks bigger than their torsos, cluster together in one corner. Their friends are squished in on the other side of the elevator, out of sight, but not out of range to continue the conversation they began when walking home from school. A tired-looking woman in a parka inhales, sharply sucking in her stomach, and presses her back against the wall. Two more kids enter the elevator in this final phase of human Tetris and finally, with 15 on board, the doors close.

After depositing passengers at floors 24, 30, 36 and 39, the elevator makes the last leg of its journey up to floor 42, where Mr. Al Rasoul and his brood disembark and head to the family’s two-bedroom apartment. As the door opens, the aroma of fried falafel briefly pours into the hallway. Mohammad, Hamze and Youssef kick off their shoes at the door and scamper to the bedroom they share to put down their backpacks and change into pajamas.

“Wash your hands and your feet,” their mother, Rasmia Al Mekhlef, scolds in Arabic.

Just like the elevator, these too are cramped quarters. They had hoped by this point they’d be on Floor 43, in a spacious three-bedroom apartment. Marwa, the 13-year-old, dreams of a room of her own in a more expensive apartment, rather than having to bunk with her sister, but Ms. Al Mekhlef, who must share a room with her husband and their four sons, knows there is nothing left to save at the end of the month. As government-assisted refugees, they received about $9,500 in startup costs and $1,600 a month for their living expenses for their first year in Canada. This Floor 42 two-bedroom apartment alone is $1,635 plus utilities. But at the start of this year, the stipend ended and they were left to fend for themselves.

Canada’s unique private sponsorship system, in which a group of private citizens financially support a refugee family for a year and help them integrate, is regarded globally as a model worth imitating, but the truth is that the largest portion of refugees who come to Canada are like the Al Rasouls, supported by the federal government in their first year. From November, 2015, until the end of February, 2017, a total of 22,405 government-assisted refugees arrived in Canada, compared with 14,960 privately sponsored ones.

The start of the second year in Canada – when the proverbial cord is cut – is seen as the crucial launch point for refugees, a point many are reaching now. The thinking goes that if Ottawa or private sponsors can carry them along in their first year with financial resources, language lessons and assistance navigating schools and clinics, the newcomers will have the tools to carry forth on their own by Month 13. But only a small portion of government-assisted refugees have functional English or French skills at the end of their first year and just a sliver are able to find jobs. The settlement workers and social workers who assist them, many of whom also take a big step back after a year, say that despite the emphasis on Month 13, it’s unrealistic to expect refugees to be thriving at that point.

At the end of their first year, most do what Mr. Al Rasoul and Ms. Al Mekhlef do: cover their expenses with welfare and the federal child benefit.

Government-assisted refugees in many ways face greater challenges than the privately sponsored cohort: They generally have lower levels of education and bigger families, according to federal figures, but fewer resources and support from volunteers. They struggle more with navigating cultural differences, finding employment, maintaining a social life and finding housing. In March, 2016, Leaside Towers, a high-rise complex, became a hub for more than two dozen government-assisted refugee families. It is now the place where they navigate the struggles of their first unsupported year in Canada.

One year in, whenever their children trill on in English they’ve picked up in school, Mr. Al Rasoul and Ms. Al Mekhlef struggle to understand. Their grasp of English is weak and neither has found a job yet.

Ms. Al Mekhlef’s 12-year-old son, Mohammad, has been asking for a cellphone for the past five months. He’s too young to burden with the full picture of the family’s dire financial situation (each month comes and goes without any money left to put into savings, let alone cover a cellphone plan for Mohammad), so she simply tells him she will get it for him one day. “I said, ‘You have to be patient. There is no money. But bit by bit it’s going to get better,’” she explains in Arabic.

She can’t yet tell him when that will be, though.

Arrival neighbourhood

There are many reasons why COSTI, one of Toronto’s biggest settlement agencies, chose to cluster 28 of the 525 refugee families they settled in Toronto in Leaside Towers. As far as Toronto apartments go, the units are massive: the bigger two-bedroom units are more than 1,400 square feet. Most landlords might be reluctant to rent a two-bedroom apartment to a family of eight, but Morguard, the real estate firm that owns the property, has been accommodating of the large Syrian broods who have moved into their 4,000-resident twin towers. They don’t require a guarantor and gave COSTI a discount on rent for the first year.

The Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, where the towers are centred, is dense, with most things newcomer Syrian families would need close by – a mosque, schools, supermarkets and Middle Eastern shops, says Mario Calla, COSTI’s executive director.

Wanda Georgis, a community social worker who has helped a dozen of the families in the two buildings since they arrived in Canada, says the residence is okay in the short term, but she hopes they move out.

“They’re paying exorbitantly high rent. And once you’re settled, it’s really hard to move.”

But the hurdles to getting out are high and numerous. With no credit history and no one to serve as a guarantor, Ms. Al Mekhlef doesn’t think she’d be able to move to a cheaper place anyway. None of the Syrian families she knows in the building have moved out.

And despite a strong local Middle Eastern community, the refugees have found tensions with their neighbours since the day they moved in, but have had to navigate them without the small army of private sponsors to advocate on their behalf.

When he returns from the quick produce run to the supermarket on Friday afternoon, Mr. Al Rasoul embraces this quiet time when five of his six children are at school. He fetches a pomegranate-coloured prayer mat from his bedroom and lays it down in the middle of the living room, which is lined with bulky upholstered furniture. He’s doing one of his five daily prayers, as three-year-old Sava lies on stacked pillows a few metres away, hands folded behind her head, entranced by the Minions video she’s watching on TV.

Most of Mr. Al Rasoul’s prayers are done here, quietly, in the living room, though he tries to make it to the mosque on Fridays. When the large group of Syrians first arrived at Leaside more than a year ago, they took to gathering with their small mats in the lobbies of the two buildings for group prayers, recalls Ian Kaufman, who lives in the complex.

“If you want to talk about cultural conflict, it was right off the bat,” he says. The group prayers were short-lived. Someone intervened, explained that this could not be done in communal spaces, and the Syrians retreated to their apartments.

By Mr. Kaufman’s count, there are 151 Syrians – 94 of them children – currently in the two towers, and their presence has given rise to conflict. The Syrians didn’t understand why they couldn’t use the communal spaces for what they saw as harmless group activities and also took offence to the presence of dogs in the building (which many consider haram, or forbidden). Other tenants saw the Syrians as acting entitled. A sponsor group might have been the ideal go-between to diffuse things from the start, to explain cultural norms to the Syrians and to act as their advocates when speaking to neighbours, but without one, people grew more frustrated.

Tenants complained last summer about the way the Syrian children rode their bikes unsupervised in the parking lot, or played loudly in front of the building, when there are many parks and playgrounds in the neighbourhood. Some parents have asked building management for a playground, but Mr. Kaufman, a wry, Larry David type, is pessimistic it will happen.

“If you do one thing for one group, everybody bitches,” he says. He points out that Mississauga has a thriving Muslim population and lots of culturally specific resources and perhaps would have been a better spot to settle the refugees who now live in Leaside Towers. They’d probably be happier and things would be calmer in the building, he says.

Ms. Al Mekhlef likes living here, though, and said she wishes she knew her non-Syrian neighbours better. But her difficulty with English gets in the way. “I can’t understand what they say very well or we’d mingle more,” she says through an interpreter. “If we knew how to speak English we’d have met the whole building.”

Learning the language

On a recent Friday, in an English class down the hall from the ones Mr. Al Rasoul and Ms. Al Mekhlef are in, Mr. Abdel Al Mohte Al Dibel and his wife Abir Abdel Al Kader are sipping eye-poppingly strong Turkish coffee from a bottle they brought from home.

This is where all the Syrians in Leaside Towers come for English instruction, though they’re divided among several classes with other newcomers based on their aptitude.

“Elle-vett-er,” Ms. Al Kader says, her hazel eyes focused on the illustration of an elevator on her computer screen.

She clicks on an icon to play a recording of the correct pronunciation.

“Elle-uh-vay-turr!” the recorded voice cheerfully says.

“Elle-uh-vay-turr!” she mimics, briefly adopting a Canadian accent.

“I feel like a small kid sometimes,” she says in Arabic with a sheepish smile, her fair-complexioned face framed by a charcoal hijab.

Before moving the family to Lebanon, Mr. Al Dibel split his time between Homs, Syria, where his family lived, and Tripoli, Lebanon, where he worked in construction. He’s a trim man with a carefully manicured mustache and eyebrows that rest in a concerned position, softening everything he says. After bundling up and saying goodbye to their teacher, Mr. Al Dibel and Ms. Al Kader climb into their Audi station wagon, which has three coconut air fresheners dangling from the rear-view mirror.

It’s the family’s second car; the first, purchased through Kijiji eight months ago for $1,200, turned out to be a lemon. There was no question they’d replace it – they’re still not used to the Canadian climate and driving has become a necessity.

When they return to the apartment, Husam, 18, who doesn’t have class today, is sleeping in. Though his parents had high hopes he’d be preparing for university by now, he’s struggled more than his two elementary school-aged sisters to pick up the language. He curses his parents for moving into Leaside Towers, where he says the abundance of Arabs has prevented them all from learning English more quickly. The family listens to Arabic CDs in the car, they speak to their neighbours in Arabic and, even in the morning, Mr. Al Dibel plays YouTube videos by the legendary Lebanese songstress Fairouz to get his two yellow pet birds, who sit in cages mounted in the living room, to chirp along to the Arabic ballads.

Learning English can be especially tough for the government-assisted refugees with less education than their privately sponsored counterparts. About one-third of the Syrian refugees the government brought in between November, 2015, and November, 2016, had zero years of schooling, compared with 12 per cent of those who were sponsored privately.

Sometimes Ms. Al Kader jokingly threatens her Syrian friends, “I’m going to be in a fight with you,” on a hunch that if she couldn’t speak to them for a few weeks or months, it would accelerate her English learning. But she knows they are the key to her survival here, the ones who get her from week to week, keep her mind in Canada when it so often strays to Lebanon.

Families divided

Some mornings, when everyone else is asleep, Ms. Al Kader tiptoes into the living room, sits by the window and cries, racked with guilt that she is here but some of her family is not.

They fled from their house for Tripoli in 2012. Three years later, when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees told her they had been accepted as refugees in Canada, she learned that only she, her husband and their three youngest were listed together as a family unit. Though she and Mr. Al Dibel lived together with their five children, the two eldest, who are in their twenties and married with one child each, were not considered part of the household. She worries for their safety there – both her son and her daughter’s husband were imprisoned for having invalid residency papers. Since January, she’s been in touch with a group from a local church that is trying to sponsor them and she is hopeful they will be reunited soon.

During the first few months in Canada, Ms. Al Kader cooked only simple dishes. It seemed wrong, disrespectful somehow, to eat well here in Canada, to behave as if everything was normal, when she knew her children were on the other side of the world, struggling. A doctor suggested she take antidepressants.

Ms. Georgis, the social worker, said many of the Syrian refugees she works with, including some of the dozen families in Leaside Towers, have mental-health struggles, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Even after a year here, the horror they lived through feels fresh, and many are glued to the news reports and WhatsApp updates on the chaos and destruction in their hometowns.

In these cases, too, privately sponsored refugees have a leg up. Ms. Georgis notes that those refugees have an instant social network of stable people around them, volunteers who are there to help them adjust but also to provide them with company. Government-assisted refugees, meanwhile, often cling to each other. They receive help from settlement workers and social workers to register their children in school, and take them to their first doctors’ appointments, but they’re just a few among many clients oversubscribed workers are juggling. After a year, the regular visits come to an end, though COSTI does a check-in with the refugees it settles halfway through their second year. Some volunteers have assumed a role similar to private sponsors where they drop by to visit the government refugees, help find them furniture, even visiting multiple times a week, but not all are as consistent or involved as the refugees wish they were. And for many, the relationship ends once the first year is over.

The refugees the government assists also tend to come from bigger families – more than 57 per cent of those who arrived between November, 2015, and July, 2016, were part of families of six or more people, versus just 7 per cent of privately sponsored refugees. This is because a larger household usually means a higher financial burden for those footing the bill for the first year, so private sponsors tend to request smaller ones.

The way Ms. Al Kader sees it, the bigger families are the luckier ones, since they receive the benefit for all their children. Their friends the Al Rasouls, for example, receive $3,400 a month for their six children, on top of their welfare payment. Still, what they receive gets used up quickly feeding eight mouths, clothing eight bodies, and covering rent, utilities, insurance and car expenses in one of Canada’s most expensive cities. Most of the children’s clothing was donated or comes from consignment shops. Last Eid, instead of buying her son a $5 pair of pants at Value Village, Ms. Al Mekhlef spent $9 for a pair from Wal-Mart. She can’t splurge like that often.

Making ends meet

There is an enormous pressure many impose on themselves to mask their trauma, anger and frustrations after they arrive. At various points, all three of the Syrian refugee families The Globe spent time with rhapsodized about how happy they were to be in Canada now, how thankful they were to Canadians and to the government for taking them in, as though reciting from a script. They were careful not to complain too much about squeezing six people into a bedroom, the fact that the springs were broken in the sofa donated to them, or that they had no idea how to prepare the frozen egg patties the food bank had given them. The last thing they wanted was to seem ungrateful.

But it can be difficult to keep their spirits high when, more than a year out, their integration has been so difficult. Mr. Al Dibel was introduced to a man who said he could find him work in construction, but after seeing how limited his English was, the man declined. He told Mr. Al Dibel to come back once his English was at Level 2, which he believes will take at least two years to achieve. Dejected, he started looking for work at restaurants, though he feels no employer is interested in hiring someone his age.

“If my husband doesn’t work, there’s no hope. If we’re on welfare, no one’s going to give us an apartment to rent,” Ms. Al Kader says in Arabic.

The networks that privately sponsored refugees have access to give them an enormous advantage when it comes to securing employment, according to preliminary results of surveys conducted by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. More than half of privately sponsored Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada (excluding Quebec) by March 1 had already found employment, compared with just 10 per cent of government-assisted ones. Many privately sponsored refugees enjoy the benefit of having their sponsors hustle on their behalf: It helps a great deal to have a dozen motivated Canadians canvassing their networks just to find you, one member of the family they’re sponsoring, a job.

A few among the 28 government-assisted families who have settled in Leaside Towers have found work in the neighbourhood – some frying up halal chicken at the Popeyes, or stocking shelves at Iqbal Halal Market. But some see a disincentive to taking a minimum-wage job: In Ontario, if you are on Ontario Works and get a job, half your earnings over $200 are deducted from your welfare cheque. As they see it, they’d be bringing home so little money that they’re better off using that time to focus on improving English, or running their households, which can consume much of their day.

And this is the flip side of having no guidance from sponsors – the freedom to make choices and to learn from mistakes.

Ms. Georgis works with both government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees and is amused watching the way both handle finances. There can be a tendency toward paternalism among private sponsors, she said, who, with good intentions, scold refugees for what they see as irresponsible spending.

“Ultimately, these are human beings who have been caring for themselves,” she said. “If they make a wrong decision, fine, they’ll learn. We learn from our mistakes, too.”

Four months after the families moved to Leaside Towers, Ms. Georgis noticed some of them were buying cars and it gave her pause. But she watched the positive effect it had on the mental health of the men, the clients who struggled most with the transition to life in Canada and loss of identity as family breadwinners.

“What the car has given these men is a sense they can do something for their family, for their kids. When their kid has to go to the doctor, they can drive their kid to the doctor and feel good about that. They can drive themselves to Niagara Falls and feel good about that,” she said. “I am convinced that has been so good and healing for these families.”

Emerging leaders

On Friday evenings just before 6 p.m., Manal Alumoor is on her phone, pounding out a WhatsApp message in Arabic to all the other Syrian refugees in Leaside Towers, telling them to go to the library in building 95 for the evening English class organized by volunteers. If she doesn’t message them, she says, they don’t go. She’s emerged as one of the newcomers who leads the group, who has figured out how to navigate this new life in Canada without needing a lot of hand-holding.

Though she has little education and comes from a rural village near the Syria-Jordan border, Ms. Alumoor is a bridge to the broader community in Leaside Towers. When Pat Wright, an organizer of many activities in apartment complex, has a message she needs to send to all the families, she asks Ms. Alumoor and another Syrian man in the building who has strong English skills to convey it.

“Leader, leader, I am leader,” Ms. Alumoor says proudly with a half-smile, pointing at her chest. She has a no-nonsense way about her, with stern, archless eyebrows and a prominent chin.

Ms. Alumoor, her husband Ahmad Alhaj Ali and their children have benefited from programming set up by Ms. Wright, other residents and Omar Khan, a volunteer who has come to know some of the families well. The benefits of Mr. Khan’s efforts extend into the wider community of Leaside Towers as well, bringing much-needed understanding in rocky times.

Last year, he came to speak to the tenants’ association to act as a spokesman for the newcomers, explaining the challenges they face and suggesting ways tenants could help the newcomers integrate – by helping tutor some of the children, for example.

From there, a lineup of free programming has grown: English conversation sessions, extra math help for the kids. Ms. Wright, who has come to know many of the Syrians through co-ordinating these programs, believes they have transformed the complex for the better. She’s already thinking ahead to what might happen when some might move out.

“It’s more alive now,” she says. “I think we would miss them.”

Ms. Alumoor attends all three of the supplementary classes offered in the building each week, and credits them for her fast-improving English. She still struggles with basic greetings such as “take care,” for example, which she pronounces more like “daycare.”

“It will take me 100 years to learn that,” she says in Arabic.

Ms. Alumoor makes small talk in her English class about how she’s happy spring is arriving, but in fact the longer hours of sunshine also bring anxiety. A new season means big expenses: clothes and shoes for her five kids, among them nine-year-old triplet boys, who are always measuring what each receives compared with the others when it comes to food, toys and attention. After they arrive home from school on a Friday afternoon and eat, they park in front of the TV to play a video game, occasionally elbowing and shoving each other, then dramatically reacting to being shoved or elbowed to elicit sympathy from their parents.

“Foreigners here have one or two kids. We didn’t know why,” Ms. Alumoor says in Arabic. She pauses for effect, then smiles widely, shaking her head. “Now we know why.”

Her husband, Mr. Alhaj Ali, has the silver stubble of a man who doesn’t need to report for work daily and smiles widely when he senses a joke in English, even if he doesn’t fully understand it.

He was about to register in technical school when he met a Canadian man who promised he could find him a high-paying job in a line of work he was familiar with: tile installation. Mr. Alhaj Ali excitedly sent the man photos of some of the projects he’d completed in Syria and awaited the man’s call, but it never came. By then he’d missed registration in the course and is now on the waiting list.

Some of his neighbours have taken to driving for Uber and some have been taking under-the-table payments to work at a warehouse in Vaughan, a long commute northwest of Toronto. Mr. Alhaj Ali has prioritized his learning for now.

Normal teen concerns

Seidra, the eldest child, is hopeful her parents will find work, for no other reason than she absolutely must stay in this neighbourhood, where she has carefully built a social network over the past year and a bit. The loud, belly-laughing 13-year-old looks nothing like her dark-featured parents. Her hair, covered by a leopard-print hijab, is auburn and her nose and cheeks are dotted with freckles. She visits the mall with one set of friends to window shop. She’ll meet with others to buy Mars bars at Dollarama. Her parents bought her a cellphone, but it has no data, so she mostly calls her friends to find out what happened in the five minutes since they last spoke.

While standing in the kitchen with Ms. Alumoor, who is preparing stuffed grape leaves and zucchini for supper, Seidra reminds her mother that she’ll be going to Tim Hortons at 3 p.m. for her Friday standing date with her closest friends, one of them Mr. Al Rasoul and Ms. Al Mekhlef’s daughter Marwa. Seidra never eats doughnuts (she’s convinced they’ll make her fat) but she and her friends are obsessed with the chain’s French vanilla and creamy chocolate chill drinks, whose nutritional composition they are clearly unaware of.

“I tell her there is lots of sugar,” Ms. Alumoor says in stilted English.

“I not go with my friends every day to the Tim Hortons,” Seidra bleats, her voice dripping with adolescent disdain.

“I know, I know,” Ms. Alumoor says quietly. She looks up from washing zucchini to give her daughter the sort of warm, loving smile that teenagers always receive with an eye roll.

This is a few dollars she will not fret over.

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Dakshana Bascaramurty

The Globe and Mail
Last updated: Friday, Apr. 21, 2017 6:20PM EDT