Syrian Refugees and News updates

Trump's immigration plans may be Canada’s gain


US Leadership on refugee relief will be missed: Calgary Catholic Immigration Society


Many Syrian refugees who landed in Calgary have started their own businesses already. Pictured clockwise from top left are Mery Makhoul and Antoine Rayan owners of Aleppo's Kitchen, Omar Lababidi who started his own clothing line Fancy Label, Rita Khanchat, owner of Syrian Cuisine Made With Love and Wafaa of Wafaa's Alterations.


By: Metro Published on Fri Jan 27 2017

The Trump administration’s plans to limit immigration and refugees could be a boon for Canada but also dangerous for those fleeing war-torn countries, according to Calgary experts.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order slashing the number of refugees the country will accept from 110,000 annually to 50,000, and temporarily limiting immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries.

Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, said it’s too soon to say what effect his executive order could have in the long run, but he is expecting a different environment over the next four years.

“The US actually does a big bulk of the international work on refugees – it would be very sad to see the US really doesn’t want to do what they have been doing for many years,” he said.

Birjandian noted refugees and immigrants are in two very different categories. While the first are fleeing dangerous situations in a hurry, countries compete to attract the smartest and most talented immigrants.

“The United States is usually the first destination of choice for immigrants,” said Birjandian. “It’s a huge economic benefit.’

He said it’s possible Canada could benefit by attracting more highly skilled workers if the US somehow reduced the number of immigrants it was accepting.

Saima Jamal, co founder of the Syrian Refugees Support Group in Calgary, noted that refugees also end up contributing greatly once they have some help getting on their feet.  

“Whoever comes as refugees – the first two or three years we have to look after them, but after that they are a huge help,” she said. “Once you have given them the tools, holy moly, are they ready to make a home, make a success.”

She has grave concerns about the limits the US is putting on immigration from certain countries. Currently the limits are only for 30 days until the US can re-examine its vetting process.

 “We need to be cognizant that this might be happen to people that have already asked for refugee status – there could be a huge influx of refugees (at our border),” she said.




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Calgary Herald Christmas Fund 2016: Shelter from the cold









It’s a word that resonates in our hearts and minds, almost as powerfully as the word love. For Abdullatif Abdul Karim, it’s an English word he learned only recently. These days, he is using it to describe a two-storey building in the northeast neighbourhood of Bridgeland, tucked into a cul-de-sac a stone’s throw from a busy stretch of Memorial Drive.

“Here, we have found safety, peace, comfort, acceptance,” says Karim as he sits with his wife and four young children in the crafts room of the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre. “It is the safest we have felt in a long time.”

Karim’s comments are no exaggeration. Indeed, the soft-spoken 31-year-old speaks with extreme understatement.

His escape from Aleppo, Syria, is one that has taken years, many tears and the kind of harrowing experiences only those who have fled war can truly understand. When and his wife, Ebitsam Alawa — their four children, ages three to seven, in tow — arrived at Calgary International Airport last month, they knew their death-defying journey was finally behind them.

“We were met with nice faces and kind hearts,” says Karim with the help of interpreter Rima Yacoub, a resettlement counsellor at the centre. His wife concurs: “It was an amazing feeling, from the moment we arrived, being welcomed here with love.”


Providing a temporary home for newcomers is one that the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society has provided for 35 years in the city. Over those decades, says Fariborz Birjandian, it has evolved to service so much more than the essential need for shelter.

“This centre has been here for 22 years, designed to help those who arrive relieve their stress, become familiar with life in Canada in a safe environment, get ready to begin their lives here,” says Birjandian, its CEO. “More than 15,000 Calgarians started their new lives right here in this building.”

Sitting in the centre’s cafeteria during the lunch hour, a steady stream of people of all ages line up for a hot meal, while the chatter of little ones fills the air. “More than 90 per cent of them have come from a very harsh situation,” says Birjandian, noting that 1,400 people arrived from Syria in the last year. “There are so many practical things we need to do, but we also work on helping them rebuild the self-esteem they lost as a refugee.”


Like Birjandian, Arlene Adamson devotes her days to helping those needing, first and foremost, shelter. But her clients also require help with a wide range of daily challenges that are unique to their stage in life.

“For those who have never had to worry about a roof over their heads, the concept of shelter is something we take for granted,” says Adamson, CEO of Silvera for Seniors, a charitable organization that has been helping seniors and their families in Calgary for over half a century. “For those not as fortunate, it can be a driving-in-your-face worry.”

Navigating the affordable housing system is even more challenging when faced with the impairments of advanced age, she notes. Many of her clients — the average age is 85, with a higher number in recent years of those 90 and older — experience everything from loss of vision and hearing to reduced mobility and memory loss. Combine those with a lack of computer literacy and social isolation, says Adamson, and you have a highly vulnerable community that can so easily fall through the cracks.


“This is an age group that can’t even function at a homeless shelter,” says Adamson, whose organization offers several programs and services along with helping low-income seniors find housing. “We’re dealing with a population vulnerable like no other.”

The people Heather Morley helps to find both temporary and permanent housing are much younger. Some, in fact, have barely spoken their first words. “So often, they are the invisible homeless,” says Morley, vice-president of programs and services at YWCA Calgary. “People are more willing to open their homes temporarily to a woman with young children, so you don’t see them show up in the traditional places that help those facing homelessness.”

The YWCA helped to house more than 1,200 women and their children last year, from emergency shelters to transitional housing. The supports, however, go far beyond a providing a roof and four walls.

“We are starting to learn much more about the unique ways in which homelessness affects women and children,” says Morley, whose organization is the longest serving in the city for women, helping them to break the cycle of family violence, poverty and homelessness. “It is about a bed and a safe roof over their heads, but it’s also about counselling and support. One won’t work without the other.”


Watching the city of his birth collapse in recent days, not knowing the fate of relatives and friends, has been nothing short of torturous for Abdullatif Abdul Karim and his 29-year-old wife. “It is breaking our hearts, making us ache,” he says as he wipes tears from his eyes.

No one needs to tell him he is one of the lucky ones. In the coming days, he and his family will settle into their first home in many years, in a city that despite a recent winter freeze, has already shown its warmth. “As a parent, all you want is a better future for your kids,” says Karim as his four little ones proudly hold up snowmen they made out of paper plates and crafts.

“We will be sad to leave this place, it has been home to us,” he says. “But we’re ready to start our new lives, filled with hope.”

The Calgary Herald Christmas Fund has raised $726,132.88 from 2151 donors so far.

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'Wild adventure' starts anew as agencies brace for hundreds more Syrian refugees


'Wild adventure' starts anew as agencies brace for hundreds more Syrian refugees

Calgary agencies help 2,400 who arrived earlier this year, prepare for hundreds more

By Bryan Labby, CBC News Posted: Dec 12, 2016 5:00 AM MT Last Updated: Dec 12, 2016 9:56 AM MT

It has been a year since Canada started getting an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees, with more than 2,000 settling in Calgary alone. This is Part 1 in a five-part series looking at how those refugees are doing a year in and the effects of that influx on their support agencies.


Settlement agencies in Alberta are bracing for up to 700 more Syrian refugees — while still struggling to cope with a surge of 4,200 who arrived in the first few months of the year.  

Calgary alone has welcomed 2,400 Syrian refugees with more to come.

"We don't want 2,000 people in three months — nobody wants that. This is chaos, it's not good," says Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, one of the lead settlement agencies in Calgary.


Canada immigration officials say up to 500 government-assisted refugees could arrive in Alberta by the end of the month, and another 200 privately-sponsored refugees early next year.

Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, says the number of privately-sponsored refugees is approximate, and could change depending on a number of factors, including when people are available to travel.

"Those who aren't able to travel before the end of year will arrive in 2017," Caron wrote in an email to CBC News.


"It's a little bit of a struggle to keep our head above water," says Cesar Suva, a program manager for the Calgary Immigrant Education Society. 

Suva put together a program called Empowering Syrian Refugees, which received $56,000 from the city of Calgary's Emergency Resiliency Fund.

Suva says the goal is to teach refugees the basics, including how to find a doctor or open a bank account.

"It could determine in fact whether this family is able to get a footing in the new community, or becoming economically or socially isolated," says Suva.

'Wild adventure' 

The surge of Syrian refugees is the largest resettlement of refugees in Canada in a generation, not seen since the arrival of the 60,000 so-called 'Boat People' who came from Vietnam in 1979-80.

"[The year] 2016 has absolutely been a wild adventure for our clinic," says Cheryl San Juan, the primary care manager of the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in northeast Calgary. 


"It was really all hands on deck," says San Juan.

The clinic offers newcomers a variety of services from physicians and specialists — including pediatricians and obstetricians, gynecologists, nurses, social workers, dieticians and mental health therapists.  

One of the emerging issues health care providers are dealing with is the cultural barrier among Muslim women, who are reluctant to speak to practitioners, especially male health care providers, on their own.  

The clinic is looking at bringing in more female mental health therapists.

"The women refugees that we see coming in are experiencing that culture shift," says San Juan. 

She says clinic staff are trying to educate and empower them "to find their voice as a woman."

'Awful state' 

The clinic is also looking at forming a refugee support group for men who are dealing with trauma, related to torture and other atrocities they endured during the conflict.

"I can name you 20 illnesses that are completely [untreated] of patients I've seen that we're trying to deal with now," says Dr. Gabriel Fabreau who treats patients at the Refugee Health Clinic.


Dr. Fabreau says on the mental health side, some patients suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and major depression.

"Up to 30 per cent of all refugees, five years after arrival, are still suffering from mental illness," says Fabreau, who referenced medical studies done on the settlement of refugees.

​Birjandian, a former refugee himself, says the settlement process will take time and it's not an easy transition.

He is proud of Calgarians' response to help the refugees.  He says more private sponsors stepped forward on a per capita basis than any other city in Canada.

"We don't make decisions about who comes to Calgary, this is a government decision, however when they come here we have to do the best job possible," he said.



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One year after arrival, Syrian refugees continue to face employment barriers



In Calgary, home to the country’s highest unemployment rate, service providers are seeking new ways to link newcomers with work. One is offering more training in entrepreneurship, says Fariborz Birjandian, chief executive of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society

Adnan Almekdad is a former veterinarian from southern Syria, where he ran a large-animal clinic and provided vet services to a poultry farm. He spent another decade as a manager and strategist at several pharmaceutical startups. He has also published two books. His background, he says wryly, is in “poetry and poultry.”

Now in Canada after fleeing the war, he has stable housing, his three daughters are flourishing in school and his wife is volunteering and attending language classes. He has a supportive sponsorship group, some of whom have become close friends, and his English is remarkably good, after just 10 months in the country.

What he doesn’t have, despite sending out hundreds of résumés, is a job.

Related: Syrian exodus to Canada: One year later, a look at who the refugees are and where they went

Related: Finding a home, away from home: Refugees, sponsors and what it means to be Canadian

Read more: Syrian refugee family thankful for freedom in Canada

“I am skilled – I have experiences in working, management, manufacturing processes,” he says in an interview in Toronto, frustration evident in his voice. “It’s hard.”

He has some theories why he hasn’t found work: “the gap in my résumé, between 2012 and now, the other gap between the Syrian experience and the Canadian experience, and another gap between the Syrian certificates and Canadian certificates.”

Canada has welcomed more than 35,000 Syrian newcomers in the past year, at a time when many other countries are closing their doors to refugees. As the one-year mark of the first arrivals looms, their success in integrating into the labour market has been mixed. For many, it will take longer than one year to adjust. But month 13 – when income support ends – is the crucial time when many must either find work or apply for social assistance. While Canada has won praise for its warm welcome of newcomers, experts see room for improvement in smoothing their transition into the work force.

Recognition of foreign credentials is a key challenge, says Lori Wilkinson, director of Immigration Research West and professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba. Another is simply having proof of past experience.

“In some instances, people who are fleeing their country, or even their house, they have minutes to get out of their house – so they don’t think to take their university diploma or certificate. It’s the same thing with job references – they’re not there, or they’ve been killed, or you can’t find them, or you can’t give a reference in English or French – those are issues that are unique to refugees, more so than immigrants, that might pose barriers to entering into employment.”

Research shows refugees eventually catch up with their Canadian-born counterparts in the labour market, she noted. Among Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the late 1970s, the unemployment rate is now 2.5 percentage points lower than the rate of those born in Canada. “They’re highly successful,” she said, adding that this bodes well for the Syrian cohort.

In Calgary, home to the country’s highest unemployment rate, service providers are seeking new ways to link newcomers with work. One is offering more training in entrepreneurship, says Fariborz Birjandian, chief executive of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

“I have a soap-maker, I have a guy who used to make beautiful handicrafts, people in catering and a woman who makes food that’s very popular. … So there is that potential,” he says. The other area with promise is where temporary foreign workers used to work, Mr. Birjandian says. Now that the TFW program has been scaled back, “we’re moving in to fill that gap” with newcomers, he says.

Most newcomers arrived as government-assisted or privately sponsored refugees, and Mr. Birjandian and other service providers say the transition is especially hard among government-assisted refugees, who tend to have lower skills and less fluency when they arrive.

More than half of privately sponsored Syrians who arrived by March 1 have already found employment, preliminary findings from an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada survey show. The employment rate, however, among government-assisted refugees is about 12 per cent.

Mr. Birjandian, who himself came to Canada as a refugee 28 years ago from Iran, says it will take time to adjust. “This is a group that came with a lot of trauma, a lot of issues. We should look at this longer-term, for them to recover, coming to a country like Canada with no language, it makes it 100 times harder.”

Learning one of the official languages is crucial to labour-market integration – though here, too, there are difficulties. Service providers in Surrey, B.C., Calgary and Toronto all told The Globe and Mail there are now long wait lists for classes.

Wait times “are an issue because the longer you wait to get into an English or French class, the longer it takes you to integrate, the longer it takes you to get a job, and the more frustrated you get and the more difficult your integration experience can become,” Prof. Wilkinson says.

Some people are getting discouraged. In north Scarborough, Ont., Fadi Alsheikh is a former dentist and dental surgeon who spent 11 years practising and partnering with the Red Cross in different cities in Syria.

Mr. Alsheikh, 35, arrived in Canada in June, after a stressful seven-month period in Lebanon, when his family lived in fear of deportation. One wall he has hit: All of his university certificates and work-related documents are in Arabic. Getting them translated into English costs $40 a page – an expense he cannot afford.

“It’s been very hard, this change,” he says through an interpreter.

In Toronto, Mr. Almekdad, 45, hopes that employers will understand that, rather than a four-year employment gap, he acquired valuable skills in that time, such as resiliency and adaptability. He doesn’t want to rely on assistance. He just needs a chance to prove himself.

“I want to find a job before the end of the first year, because it’s a long time to sit and wait. Canada to me means many things, and one is to find a job or a business at last. You know, you’re not feeling like a citizen if you don’t have a job, to belong to the place.”


Employers find success hiring 'amazing' Syrian refugees

Some employers have found a solid business case for hiring newcomers. In Hamilton, Coppley Ltd., a maker of custom-tailored, high-end men’s clothing that started in 1883, is one.

Sewing is a lost art in Canada, so it can be difficult finding Canadian-born workers with the right skills, says Julie Dubber, finance and human-resources manager. She hired a Syrian wife and husband in January, and the company now has about 20 workers who are Syrian refugees.

“These folks are amazing. They are so thrilled to have the things that we take so much for granted – their safety. I was speaking to a lady the other day and she actually was shot when she was in Syria. And she saw her co-workers in her place of employment killed. So she comes here every day and she’s thrilled because she’s safe.”

There have been some challenges along the way – the company held a routine fire-alarm drill without realizing it would startle some new hires, prompting co-workers to offer assurances of safety. English can be limited, but the company has other workers who can translate. Staff have become used to giving hand signals, and when necessary hire outside interpreters.

Not all hires have proven a good fit – but most have. “They show up for work every day, they’re happy, they are very hard workers, they’re starting their lives all over and a lot of the folks coming here are very highly skilled, very well-educated,” Ms. Dubber says.

Halifax has had success in matching refugees with jobs. After realizing many Syrian newcomers were anxious to quickly get to work, one agency introduced bridge-to-work programs that prepare people to enter the work force and link newcomers with employers in areas such as construction, hospitality, trades and the food industry. So far, about 40 Syrians have found jobs through this bridging program. A trades practical-assessment program assesses those with experience even if they lack documentation or have limited English, says Gerry Mills, executive director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.

“Employers know that refugees and immigrants have a great work ethic, and they’re great employees – they stay.”

– Tavia Grant






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Calgary Herald Christmas Fund 2016: Refugees find safety, thanks to immigration society

Calgary Herald Christmas Fund 2016: Refugees find safety, thanks to immigration society


Published on: December 2, 2016 | Last Updated: December 2, 2016 5:40 AM MST


ISIS terrorists robbed George Darmo’s store. They threatened to kidnap him, kill his family and blow up his children’s school.

Targeted by the radical group because he is Christian, Darmo knew he and his family needed to find a safer place to live. Someplace far from Syria.

One night, he, his wife Nasma and his mother Awikel decided they couldn’t stay any longer. The next morning, they packed their car, loading the couple’s young children, clothing, important papers and jewelry.

And they drove to Lebanon, the first stop on their long journey to Canada.

They are just one of the 917 refugees privately sponsored by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society in 2016.

Speaking through interpreter Anoush Newman, the Darmo family shared the story of their lives, to help raise awareness of the important work CCIS does in the city.

The 2016 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund donations for CCIS will go toward rent, groceries, English classes and other integration aid for new Canadians. “One hundred per cent goes toward refugees,” says Fariborz Birjandian, the society’s chief executive.

Only a short time after the Darmo family fled Syria, more than 200 of their family members and friends were kidnapped by ISIS. Some were murdered. George’s store was looted and burned. Most of their town was destroyed. They don’t know what has happened to their house. There’s no one left to tell them.

Awikel cries as they share this part of their story.

Life in Lebanon wasn’t easy, either. They lived in a refugee camp and sold the women’s jewelry to pay for living expenses. The kids had access to school, but only occasionally and it was expensive.

“It was hard to see the kids not at school,” Nasma says. “And we worried that ISIL would move into Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, in Calgary, George’s cousin had approached CCIS to see if his relatives could be sponsored. The request was approved and on Dec. 27, 2015, the Darmo family boarded the plane to Canada.


At the time, David, 11, knew only a few words of English: “Yes, no, hi!” he says with a grin.

But within a few weeks of being in Canada, he and his sister, Kailen, 8, had made new friends. They walk to school every morning and their little brother, Ralph, only four years old, will join them soon. David plays soccer — his favourite sport — and he dreams of helping people when he’s older, the same way his own family has been helped.

George found a job at a furniture warehouse, but after four months he was laid off because of the economic downturn.

Now, the three adults are focusing on English classes and finding work.

And they’ve decorated their home — the first time since they fled Syria — to mark their first Christmas in their new country.

“We are very grateful to be here,” Nasma says with a big smile.

“We don’t have fear anymore every time we step out of the house.”

The Calgary Catholic Immigration Society is a recipient of the 2016 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund.You can help its work by going here to donate to the fund.

The current total of the 2016 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund is: $68,422.88.

Significant numbers for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society

1981 — The year the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society was incorporated. It is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

6,500 — The approximate number of refugees sponsored by CCIS since becoming a Sponsorship Agreement Holder in 1979.

423 — The number of Syrian refugees privately sponsored by CCIS from September 2014 to November 2016.

917 — The total number of refugees from around the world sponsored by CCIS, from January to November 2016.

7 — Number of countries of origin for refugees brought to Calgary — Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, Tibet and Somalia.

70 — The number of programs CCIS offers to new immigrants and refugees. They include Support for Survivors of Torture as well as the Refugee Child Enhanced Settlement Integration Project, which helps children adapt to the school system in Alberta.

1,500 — The number of volunteers behind the scenes at CCIS.

60 — The number of languages spoken by CCIS staff and volunteers.

$35,000 — The rough cost of privately sponsoring one refugee family (four or five people) to come to Calgary.

10 — The number of months it took to receive their visas and tickets after the Darmo family’s application was approved to come to Canada from Syria.





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