UN campaign to feature Canada private sponsorship program for refugees
New campaign by United Nations High Commission for Refugees will show how Syrians are settling in Canada under the private sponsorship program.
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The Al Zhouri family arrived in the Nova Scotia town of Antigonish last January as part of the first wave of Syrian refugees to Canada.
The five-member clan had lost a home and the family construction business due to fighting in the city of Homs. They were clinging to hope after three years spent struggling to survive in Lebanon.
But nearly 10 months after arriving in Canada as privately sponsored refugees, the Al Zhouris are thriving. Father Toufic, a carpenter by trade, is making plans to rebuild the family business. Mother Rabiaa, a teacher who launched an alterations and upholstery business, recently completed a rush job sewing names and numbers onto the jerseys of the St. Francis Xavier University’s men’s ice hockey team.
The three children, Majd, Aghyad and Ranim are busy with high school studies, making up for the time they lost in between their old home and their new one.
“Now I am more than proud to say that Antigonish is our second home, Majd, 20, said in a recent interview.
“Everyone in my family agrees with me.”
The Al Zhouri family’s experience as privately sponsored refugees — as well as those of several other families across Canada — is being highlighted internationally by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in a publicity campaign set to launch in mid-November.
The campaign will feature a number of Syrian refugee families who have settled across Canada over the course of the last year, officials said. The production crew has filmed in Nova Scotia, Ontario and the Yukon, among other places.
The goal of the campaign is to promote a unique-in-the-world program that allows Canadian sponsors to apply to bring specific refugees to the country with the understanding that all basic expenses and resettlement support will be provided for one year after their arrival. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived under the program since its creation in 1979.
“With the current desperate global refugee situation and high rates of vulnerability, UNHCR has been calling for more solidarity with refugees and showcasing Canada’s private sponsorship as a model,” said Johannes van der Klaauw, the UN agency’s representative in Canada.
“The public involvement in welcoming and assisting in the integration of refugees into Canadian communities makes this program an example to emulate.”
As of Oct. 23, the federal government says that 33,239 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada. Of that number, 17,437 have been sponsored by Ottawa while a slightly smaller number, 12,402, have been privately sponsored by family members or community and church groups across the country.
In the case of the Al Zhouri family, it was the S.A.F.E. society, a charitable group whose acronym stands for Syria-Antigonish Families Embrace, who acted as sponsors.
Cindy Murphy is a member of the group. When she is not working to assist the Al Zhouris and other Syrian refugee families in finding work or learning how to drive on Canadian roads, she is a laboratory supervisor at St. Francis Xavier University.
“I have no background in the settlement of new families. I am a geoscientist. But a large group of us got together who were so motivated by what was going on in the Syrian crisis and you just do what you can do and you learn on the job,” she said.
The experience of the Al Zhouri family has been touted as a refugee success story, but it has not been without its challenges, Murphy said.
One of the biggest barriers to overcome has been finding affordable housing. It is a problem that is no different for the low-income Syrian newcomers than it is for Canadian low-income families — and it has been overcome only with the assistance of “benevolent landlords,” Murphy said.
But the Al Zhouri family’s support team has also arranged things like clothing assistance, language instruction and employment counselling, as well as school help for the children, to aid with their transition.
Majd Al Zhouri, the eldest son, had to forgo his formal education when the family fled Syria for Lebanon. This year, he is trying to complete the course requirements for Grades 11 and 12 and finish high school.
Mother Rabiaa spent the summer selling Syrian cookies at a local market before launching into the alteration and upholstery market. Toufic has found some work as a carpenter with a local construction company, but now dreams of rebuilding the business that was lost to the conflict back home, Majd said.
“The interesting thing I find is that they look around to see what is going on in the community and where they can best fit,” Murphy said. “They have tremendous talent, but they’re not looking to put anyone out of business. They’re looking to fill a niche.”
Majd’s sees his niche as an engineer, working with his father one day in a family-owned company.
“Our life now is on track. Everyone has a plan and everyone has a goal and everyone is going to get their goal,” he said. “We can now say we are exactly like Canadian people.”
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