No Going Back

Calgary’s Syrian newcomers adjust to a new life

By Tadzio Richards

Today at a random location in Alberta, one can encounter the consequences of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. I didn’t know this until I went for a haircut. That’s where I met Wassim Aladdin from Syria.

It was a Sunday in March 2016, in a salon at Calgary’s Chinook Mall. I didn’t plan to go to the salon. I wanted to do a few errands and get in and out of the mall quickly—but the barbershop was closed and I needed a haircut. Only the salon was open. It had brightly lit shelves full of shampoos, conditioners, gels and creams at the entrance and shiny metal trim on the wall mirrors. The woman at the front desk sent me to Wassim, a stylist with a fluffy dark mane of blow-dried hair swooping to his shoulders.

“I just need a trim,” I said, as I sat in a salon chair.

We made some small talk about the state of Alberta’s economy and then I asked him how he first came to Canada. It was in late 2008, he said. “One of my clients asked me if I want to go and I said OK. She applied for me; it was with a dance group. I thought Canada will be the way to go international with my business,” he said. “So I thought I should stay and check out the hair industry, how it works here. After that, then the war start back home in Syria and I couldn’t go back.”

Wassim is from Damascus. His family—two brothers and his parents—fled from Syria to Lebanon, and he is sponsoring them to come to Canada.
They had little choice but to flee their home country. Since March 2011 an estimated 470,000 people have been killed in the war. The Syrian government has used barrel bombs and poison gas on its own civilians. As a consequence, nearly five million Syrian refugees have registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Although the war was constantly in the news, I was ignorant of all but the basic details about the country. I wanted to know what Wassim’s life was like before the war, and now in Alberta, and what would happen when his family arrived. The next time I needed a cut, I went back to the salon to learn more.

Wassim is 32. He’s Sunni—the Largest Muslim denomination. After Arabic, English is his second language; he speaks clearly but he’s not fluent. In Calgary, he said, “I don’t have so many friends, just a few. I work six days a week, sometimes seven.”

In Damascus his life was different, he said. Before the war, when he was 13, he tagged along with his mother one day to get her hair cut at the Sheraton Hotel beauty salon. At the time, he was a “chubby kid,” he said, jealous of the attention he felt his older and younger brothers got from his parents. He admired how salon owner Abid did his mother’s hair, and decided he wanted to learn how.

“I quit school. To be 13 years old in a hair salon, you get lots of attention, right, from ladies or guys. So, that’s another reason I want to do it. I find myself there, I think. I [apprenticed] with Abid at the salon. After one year, you start washing hair. By the fourth year, you do highlights. After five years, you do perms and styling.” By age 19, he was able to open his own salon.

“I loved what I was doing,” he said. “You have to be an artist to do this. I start to build clients.” After he styled one woman’s hair, he said, she proposed that he run her big downtown spa. They would partner and he would get a share in the shop. “I said OK. She was the only one in Damascus that had a Moroccan Bath—it’s special for weddings, with rose petals in the water. All the weddings came to us; we become really famous.” He landed contracts to do hair and makeup for TV and movies. “Then directors wanted me to act. I was in comedies, serious shows. I like it. I miss the parties. The city was open 24 hours. The nightlife there was beautiful. We used to go up on the roof of a hotel and have parties; point laser lights to the sky.”

His life in Calgary has no such glamour. He cuts hair at two different salons in two different malls, with a small list of private clients on the side. The work provides money for rent and food, and to sponsor his family to come to Canada.

Under Canada’s private sponsorship system, family members and other groups of Canadian citizens can put up money in the form of a trust fund to sponsor refugees to immigrate. The sponsors must partner with a charity group, usually a church organization, such as the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society or the Mennonite Central Committee, that has a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) designation with the federal government. After a refugee family arrives, the money is released by the SAH either to the sponsor, as in the case of a family sponsor such as Wassim, or to the refugees—as is the case with sponsorship groups of five or more—in monthly sums over one year to cover the refugee’s first-year expenses. Sponsors are responsible for helping refugees adjust to life in Canada, including finding housing, health and dental care, language classes and other social support. Federally sponsored refugees receive one year of government funding. When the year ends, refugees must either have a job or apply for social assistance.

Wassim was able to sponsor his family with the help of one of the few people he does know in Calgary. “He’s Canadian. He talked to his dad and his dad talked to a pastor in a church. We had a meeting with the church, the Buup-, the Baap-… it’s better if I don’t say it,” he said. “It’s here on my phone.”

He showed me an email message on his phone. “Oh, the Baptists,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. With the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada as the Sponsorship Agreement Holder, Wassim put $23,000 into a small business account that is locked, with no interest, until his family arrives. “I don’t mind to put up this money if I’m going to save my family’s life,” he said. He paused, in thought. “It’s not so easy when you first arrive. It takes about two years to learn how things work in Calgary.”

Fatima Ghazal “Zulie” Alnahas, dancer and filmmaker, performing at a fundraising benefit for a Syrian sponsorship group in Calgary.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals pledged to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada. By February 29, 2016, the goal was accomplished and the government announced Syrian refugee applications would no longer be prioritized. Even with a slowdown in processing, however, the gates of refuge remain wider than before. From 2013 to October 2015, the Conservative government resettled 2,347 Syrian refugees to Canada. But comparatively, from November 4, 2015 to January 29, 2017, Canada accepted 40,081 Syrian refugees, with more than 4,000 settled in Alberta.

“This is an amazing time for Canada, for Alberta,” said provincial Liberal leader David Swann. Over the 2015 Christmas season, Swann and his wife housed a Syrian family in Calgary until the refugees found permanent accommodation. “We need to make sure these folks find a place, and find the connections and get the support they need to be successful,” said Swann. “We all suffer if we don’t help them become successful.”

Historically, the key to immigrant success has been “strong public and citizen support,” argues author John Ralston Saul. He writes, “an immigrant is a citizen in the making.” There is both an “ethical link between immigration and citizenship” and an economic self-interest argument for bringing in refugees. “After four to seven years here, the likelihood a new Canadian will own a business overtakes that of someone Canadian born.… Immigrants and new citizens continue to be important drivers of our economy.”

Yet not all the numbers are positive. Although newcomers to Canada are on average healthier than Canadian-born people, after five to 10 years, their health declines. Immigrants who have been in Canada for five to 10 years are also far more likely to be food insecure than someone who has just arrived. Social determinants of health, including income, unemployment and job security, and access to healthcare—particularly mental health care for newcomers who may manifest PTSD symptoms years after fleeing violence—are key causes of this deteriorating situation.

A notable problem in Alberta, says Saima Jamal of the Syrian Refugee Support Group Calgary, is the gap between the needs of many new refugees and the funding available to official resettlement agencies such as the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. Jamal’s group tries to fill that gap by linking refugees with volunteers who help find furniture, go shopping, fill out forms or research jobs. The refugees, she says, “all go to language classes but at home they might only speak Arabic. There’s a lack of jobs and a language barrier. And now they’re realizing welfare won’t cover what they need. We get calls for help every day, sometimes in the middle of the night.”

Among those helped by Jamal’s group is Rita Khanchet Kallas, a refugee who arrived with her husband and four-year-old son in December 2015. I met her at the Alex Community Food Centre in Calgary, where she was awarded the 2016 People’s Choice Peace and Human Rights Award. “When you have to make a choice between your children’s life and your home,” she said, in broken English, “there is no choice. To be a refugee is something you have to do because war and politics force you to leave.”

Kallas was a broadcast engineer and her husband was a lawyer. Getting equivalent certification in Canada will take them years. “So we have to think about a temporary job,” she said. Kallas started a catering company, Syrian Cuisine Made with Love, and was the first new Syrian refugee to hold a City of Calgary business licence. After forest fires ravaged Fort McMurray in spring 2016, she gathered donations from Syrian refugees to help victims of the fire.

Syrian refugee Rita Kanchet Kallas at a community centre where she received the 2016 People’s Choice Peace and Human Rights Award

“What happened in Fort McMurray reminded us of what we passed through in Syria,” she said. “We lost everything and they lost everything. So, we collect money from the Syrian families, the newcomers, for the Fort McMurray people. I suggest a small amount of $5 or $10 from every family but most families paid, like, $50. They didn’t have a lot, but they want to pay back to Canada.”

Such expressions of gratitude are common among Syrian newcomers. So is their resiliency in the face of such barriers as language and lack of money. That resilience can be found in one of Wassim Aladdin’s friends, Fatima Ghazal Alnahas. She was part of the dance group, Enana Dance Theatre, for which Wassim was the hairstylist when they first came to Canada. She and Wassim stayed—“We got stuck here,” she said when I met her at a Starbucks in Chinook Mall.

She goes by “Zulie,” a nickname given to her as a girl in Damascus. She has long, curly, dyed-blonde hair and a speckle of light freckles across her nose and cheekbones. “I’ve been to 35 countries,” she said. “I used to perform from China to Europe, everywhere, but I never thought I would live outside Syria. It was a beautiful country, very cultured. It’s the Hollywood of the Middle East for TV shows. The work there was good because I was a TV actress along with my ballet dancing.”

When she and Wassim were in Toronto, when they first arrived, Wassim’s father told him he had a relative in Montreal, so they headed to that city. They soon discovered the relative was actually in Toronto. “We never went back (to Toronto),” she laughed. “But we don’t speak French so we had a hard time in Montreal. I saw there was an audition in Calgary for So You Think You Can Dance, that TV show.” She said when she asked people in Montreal where Calgary was, they told her it was in Europe. “Quebec people, they had no idea where is Calgary.”

“Everything I built in my life I had to start again in a new country. I start from zero.”

“I was working at a restaurant and the owner had a brother in Calgary, so I flew here,” she said. “I passed through the audition but then the funding stopped for that show. I met a lady who owned a salon and I hooked her up with Wassim and he came and got a job.”

In Calgary, Zulie has written, directed and acted in the Shaw TV series Go Fish—“about five women trying to make it in Calgary”—and a feature film with the working title Old Coffee, which she is also editing. Wassim acted in both low-budget productions under the stage name Wassam Dean.

“Everything I built in my life I had to start again in a new country,” she said. “I start from zero, less than zero. But when I came here, I knew how to direct and dance and sing—I had good training. I was waiting for documents, so I started writing scripts. I have a strong personality. I’m a go-getter. I went to parties. I talk a lot. The Alberta government gave me a grant for Go Fish, then another for the movie.” She also had an investor in 2014, but he was in oil and gas and he walked when the economy slowed down.

“Then in 2015 the war in Syria got really bad,” she said. “Two of my brothers left Damascus for Germany. One took a taxi all the way through Hungary—they didn’t allow people to walk—it was 1,000 Euros, a lot of money. My mom and stepsister went by sea from Turkey to Greece and then they walked to Germany. They’re all there now.”

“My other sister, with her one-year-old baby and husband, they were in Lebanon, but Lebanon is no place for Syrians now. They went back to Damascus. I’m trying to sponsor them, but it’s taking forever; it’s so much money. I get sick so much from the stress… I can’t create anything.”

I asked if she would move for work, as some Syrian newcomers have done since arriving in Canada. “I want to stay,” she said. “(But the city) can’t just depend on oil and construction. When it drops, it just drops. There’s huge money in entertainment too. We need more of that.”

On May 19, 2016, Wassim received an email from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, telling him his parents would arrive in Calgary on June 1 at 3 p.m., from Lebanon via Frankfurt. He was nervous—he hadn’t seen them in years—yet excited his family would live with him at his place in Bridlewood, a suburb in the far southwest of Calgary.

But there was a delay. His two brothers had not yet cleared screening in Lebanon and his parents didn’t want to leave without their sons. They decided to stay until the whole family could fly together.

Wassim cut his hair shorter and grew a beard for Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk—a particularly long time in June, which in Alberta has the longest days of the year. “It is OK, it helps me cut down on cigarettes,” said Wassim with a laugh when I asked about the fasting. He said an important part of Ramadan is to understand suffering—“what it’s like to be poor or in war.” He said he has sent money to a Syrian mother with three children whose husband died in the war. She was a refugee in Turkey, where her landlord had demanded she marry him for free rent. She moved out and Wassim sent her money to help find a new place.

In the summer he trimmed his beard and grew his hair. He seemed subdued. His brothers finally received approval to immigrate but he was told the family wouldn’t arrive until spring 2017. In Lebanon, he said, his younger brother was so worried about being deported back to Syria that he never left the apartment. “He just plays video games. He is very depressed. It’s no good.”

The limbo is not unique: a slowdown in processing Syrian refugees, caused in part by cuts to Canadian government staff in the Middle East, means citizen sponsor groups in Canada can face long delays between the time when money is put in the bank and when refugee families arrive. According to the Government of Canada, as of December 19, 2016, there were 2,712 “applications finalized but the refugees have not yet travelled to Canada.” A further 18,112 applications were in progress. To avoid a “growing backlog,” last December the federal government put a cap of no more than 1,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees allowed into Canada this year. They also capped new applications to sponsor refugees—from anywhere in the world—to 7,500 applications.

The snow fell and the winter was cold. “What do you miss most from Syria?” I asked Wassim during another haircut. He was now working seven days a week, every week. He laughed. “I miss the weather,” he said, and looked up at the ceiling in thought. “I miss the madlouka. It’s a sweet made with Aleppo pistachio, very tasty. It’s best from Syria. One day I want to eat that again.”

“What would happen if you did go back?” I asked.

“If I went back I would be in the army,” he said. “Or if ISIS won, I would have to go with ISIS. So, I have to be with anyone that’s winning. No choice. Or they just kill me and that’s it.”

Tadzio Richards is an associate editor with Alberta Views.


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