by Michelle Zilio (@michellezilio)
Speaking from their new apartment in Laval, Quebec, the Dandachi family says the past 17 days have been like a “honeymoon” compared to the past three years spent fleeing the chaos of the Syrian war and living as refugees in Lebanon.
In a phone interview Wednesday night from Laval, Que., the family expressed their thanks to the Canadian government and Canadians for accepting them as refugees. Jassem Dandachi, 57, his wife Souhad Dandachi, 48, and their children, Mohamad, 23, Jawad, 21, and Hamza, 13, arrived in Canada just 17 days ago. Jassem spoke to iPolitics both in minimal English and through a translator Wednesday.
“I thank Canadian government and I thank all Canadian people for what they are doing for us. They are doing their best things and giving us everything. I will not forget (the moment) in my life when I came to Canada,” said Jassem.
According to the Syrian Canadian Council, the Dandachis are some of the first government-sponsored Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada since a brutal civil war engulfed their home country more than three years ago.
Prior to fleeing to Lebanon, the Dandachi family was living Homs, Syria, one of the many Syrian cities that has been devastated by a bloody conflict between supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. Jassem said a number of factors forced him and his family out of the country.
First, his eldest son Mohamad was detained by the Syrian regime for 40 days and tortured for expressing distaste towards Assad during a conversation with a fellow student at his school. The student reported him to the authorities and he was subsequently detained and tortured.
“He’s saying that even after his son got released, it wasn’t the end. He had to constantly go back to the security stations for re-interrogation, so it was a very anxious environment,” said Jassem’s translator.
When the Dandachi’s home was ultimately confiscated by the Syrian regime, they were left with no choice but to flee the country. But that was no easy task. According to Jassem, the Lebanese government would not allow entire families to take refuge in Lebanon, due to constraints on the country caused by overwhelming number of Syrian refugees already there. So, the family had to cross the border strategically.
“First, he got his other son Hamad and the middle (son) Jawad because apparently there is a rule that doesn’t allow the entire family to leave Syria,” said Jassem’s translator. “Five days later, Mr. Dandachi came back to Syria and got his youngest son and his wife and they all went to Lebanon.”
The family did not have to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon, as they had cousins there they could stay with. While Jassem and his wife were unable to find work during their two years in Lebanon, his sons Mohamad and Jawad worked for Save the Children while there.
But the process for finding refuge in a third country was a long one for the family. It took about two years.
After registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2012, they went through a series of interviews with the agency later that year, in which Jassem indicated a preference for resettlement in Canada because they have family in Montreal. In January 2014, the UNHCR called them to tell them they had been selected for an interview with the Canadian embassy. They interviewed in late January and were notified of their acceptance to Canada on April 15. During their interviews at the embassy, Jassem said the family was asked questions about their reasoning for becoming refugees and any political affiliations back home.
Since arriving in Canada, the family has settled into an apartment in Laval. Jassem’s translator said Mohamad, Jawad and Hamza are already inquiring about schooling options, including university, while Jassem and Souhad are hoping to find jobs soon. Jassem was a manager for a private construction company in Syria and his wife worked in a beauty salon. The family speaks Arabic and some English, and has signed up for French courses as well.
For Jassem, the opportunity to move to Canada means his dreams of raising his family in a safe and stable environment will actually come true.
“He says that the 17 days that he’s been in Canada, he feels that it’s like a honeymoon. This is how happy they are. That he feels like his children are going to get an education and they’re living in security,” said Jassem’s translator.
Last July, the federal government committed to resettling up to 1,300 Syrian refugees, including 200 government-sponsored refugees and 1,100 privately-sponsored refugees. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said this week that 1,150 Syrian refugees have “received Canada’s protection and are inside Canada” since the beginning of the crisis. Of those 1,150, the government says it has approved more than 200 government-sponsored Syrian refugee applications. Alexander’s office has refused to indicate exactly how many of those refugees arrived after the July 2013 commitment.
The Syrian Canadian Council, however, says those numbers are inaccurate.
The council’s Spokesperson Faisal Alazem told iPolitics earlier this week that the 1,150 Syrian refugees currently in Canada are people who applied for asylum while they were in Canada on either a student, work or tourist visa, and are not new arrivals from Syria.
The question of how many Syrian refugees are actually in Canada has become a hot topic since a recent testy exchange between Alexander and a CBC journalist saw Alexander hang up the phone mid-interview. The issue has been brought up several times in question period since.
The opposition parties have hammered the Conservative government on its commitment to resettling Syrian refugees, arguing that Canada’s commitment pales in comparison to other countries like Sweden, which has committed to accepting more than 14,000 Syrian refugees and Germany at 19,000. However, Alexander has pointed out that in those cases, the refugees are only being accepted on a temporary basis.
According to Jassem, Germany and Sweden were also seen as the resettlement leaders on the ground in Lebanon. Through a translator, Jassem said that for most of his time in Lebanon, Syrian refugees were looking to go to Germany or Sweden for resettlement because they were the most widely-known options. However, he said that more recently refugees started expressing interest in resettlement in countries such as Canada, Australia, Norway and Switzerland, as those government started opening their doors.
Alexander has repeatedly encouraged Canadians commit to privately sponsoring more Syrian refugees, as there are more spots to fill. However, Alazem has said the private sponsorship process is too difficult and costly, preventing many refugees and their sponsors from using it.
“They (sponsorship agreement holders) started excited that there is a program where they could bring their families but very few went the whole way,” said Alazem. “When they would hear about the delays or the financial obligation they would pull out.”
According to CIC’s website, a group sponsoring a refugee must help the individual find suitable housing, learn English or French, find a job and make friends, and provide care for a year after they arrive in Canada, or until they are “self-supporting.” The group must also disclose information on available finances.
Alexander has offered an explanation for why it took so long for the government-sponsored Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada. Speaking to iPolitics in March, he said the government did not receive refugee referrals from the UNHCR until last December. The original request from the UNHCR for member states to accept Syrian refugees with “urgent needs” was issued six months earlier, in June.
On Feb. 21, the UNHCR issued a new global call for the resettlement of 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. Canada still is reviewing its response to the new appeal, according to Alexander’s office.
Re-published with permission.