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Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year. Then Came ‘Month 13.’

March 25, 2017

TORONTO — One year after Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country, a reckoning was underway.

Ordinary Canadians had essentially adopted thousands of Syrian families, donating a year of their time and money to guide them into new lives just as many other countries shunned them. Some citizens already considered the project a humanitarian triumph; others believed the Syrians would end up isolated and adrift, stuck on welfare or worse. As 2016 turned to 2017 and the yearlong commitments began to expire, the question of how the newcomers would fare acquired a national nickname: Month 13, when the Syrians would try to stand on their own.

On a frozen January afternoon, Liz Stark, a no-nonsense retired teacher, bustled into a modest apartment on the east side of this city, unusually anxious. She and her friends had poured themselves into resettling Mouhamad and Wissam al-Hajj, a former farmer and his wife, and their four children, becoming so close that they referred to one another as substitute grandparents, parents and children.

But the improvised family had a deadline. In two weeks, the sponsorship agreement would end. The Canadians would stop paying for rent and other basics. They would no longer manage the newcomers’ bank account and budget. Ms. Stark was adding Mr. Hajj’s name to the apartment lease, the first step in removing her own.

That afternoon, her mind was on forms, checks and her to-do list. But she knew that her little group of grandmothers, retirees and book club friends was swimming against a global surge of skepticism, even hatred, toward immigrants and refugees. The president of the superpower to the south was moving to block Syrians and cut back its refugee program. Desperate migrants were crossing into Canada on foot. Stay-out-of-our-country sentiment was reshaping Europe’s political map. In a few days, an anti-Muslim gunman would slaughter worshipers at a Quebec City mosque.

Ms. Stark and her group were betting that much of the world was wrong — that with enough support, poor Muslims from rural Syria could adapt, belong and eventually prosper and contribute in Canada. Against that backdrop, every meeting, decision and bit of progress felt heightened: Would the family succeed?

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