Thursday, 15 December 2016

What it means to be a permanent resident in a country for the first time in my life

Amr Al-Faham, his wife Rasha and their 5-months old son Kareem arrived in Toronto from Turkey on December 6, 2016 - the second family sponsored by the Ripple Refugee Project. He describes what it means for him to be a permanent resident in a country for the first time in his life.


It’s been a week and I am still in the denial phase that I am here, in famous Toronto. But more importantly, I am here with a legal status that allows me to become a citizen in a specific number of years. This means that there will be no more queuing and pushing and being pushed for hours in the crowded residency permit offices in all the countries I lived in. No more running back and forth for days to renew my residency and repeat this process every single year. No more bribing and faking a smile to the officers so they can facilitate my residency permit without complications. More importantly, no more fear of the future and feeling vulnerable every time a major incident happens in a country I live in.  

I still cannot believe that on arrival, and with a two-hour process, I was provided with documents that will help change my life for the better and for the rest of my life. I am a permanent resident in a country that I come to for the first time in my life.

In the thirties of the last century, my grandfather opened the fifth modern pharmacy in Damascus, and went to Iraq to open one of the first pharmacies in an Iraqi city. This is where he got the opportunity to get the citizenship of the back-then new-born kingdom of Iraq. He kept the Iraqi citizenship believing that Iraq will be one of the best countries in the world as it has oil and agriculture and an old civilization with a rooted culture of education and production, and he dropped or neglected the Syrian nationality.

After spending most of his life moving between Iraq and Syria, he decided to settle in his city of birth, Damascus, with his daughters and sons but he left us; his grandchildren, the legacy of Iraqi nationality.

So I was born in Damascus, Syria but with an Iraqi citizenship. And ever since, I had to renew my residency every year. My father had to renew my residency for me when I was a child and I still remember how difficult it was as the diplomatic ties were cut and borders were sealed between Damascus and Baghdad for over 22 years. My father had to know key people in the Syrian ruling Baath Party so he could succeed in keeping his and our residency going, and each year he had to make the phone calls. When I grew up I started to take his role and visit the residency offices but still my father had to make the phone calls and the prearrangements with his connections.

Things kept going this way until 2003 when the Americans invaded Iraq and millions of Iraqi refugees flooded Syria. In a few months, I turned into “just another Iraqi” in Syria and the government did not distinguish between my case and the newcomers’ cases. My father’s connections became old and left their positions and thus became useless, and the Syrian government had asked me to head to the “Bureau of Immigration and Passports” to be issued a residency permit. I still remember the first time I went there; I had to queue for seven hours in a very crowded and loud room. While queuing, the person behind me advised me to put a bribe of 500 Syrian pounds in my passport (which was worth USD10 back then) and hand it over to the officer when I reach his desk. And yes, everyone was doing the same. Collecting the residency permit was another painful process where people would crowd and push each other and shout while collecting their stamped documents.

In the following years the residency renewal became much easier - not because the Syrian government had improved it, but because my elder brother figured out a new magical way; he would enter the Bureau with a fat wallet and start distributing Syrian pounds notes here and there. Once, he asked me to accompany him and I was astonished as he looked like he was entering a bellydance night club where all the officers were saluting him while receiving the notes and slipping them in their pockets and desk drawers.


In 2013, two years after the demonstrations started and developed into a war, the Syrian regime was torturing and/or killing all the activists. Being one myself, I had to flee Syria to what was supposed to be my country: Iraq. I left to Iraqi Kurdistan to the city of Suleimani (Assulaimaniyya). Being classified as an Arab in their eyes, the Suleimani Kurdish local authorities issued me a yearly residence permit after a long interrogation process, asking me unfamiliar questions such as “what is your race? What is the name of your clan? Are you Turkmen but pretending to be an Arab?”
I was alright with that as long as I received a legal status, but it was surprising to me that I had to have a residency permit issued in my own country of citizenship. The more surprising fact was when I was traveling from Suleimani to the other Kurdish city of Erbil to meet my brother who had just moved there. The Kurdish Assaiish (Police) had sat up a big checkpoint at the city’s entrance, and the first time I was passing there, they stopped me and asked for my residency card, saying that my Suleimani card was not valid in Erbil because I was an “Arab” in their eyes. I was asked to proceed with the Erbil residency permit in order to be able to enter the city. Of course Turkish and European citizens did not require this permission; it was only the citizens of Iraq from another race.

On the second trip to Erbil I met Rasha, whom I fell in love with, and decided to travel to Erbil every second week to see her. But this meant that I had to cross the Erbil check point with an entry permission card every time I wanted to see her. The Erbil entry permission issuing process took between an hour to four hours. The process starts when the Assaiich member discovers that there is an Arab in the car and he would scream to his colleagues: ”Here is another Arab!” I then would be asked to go to a large fenced open area with no chairs or trees and queue, sometimes push and be pushed, and fight until I got this permit card. I had to wait in the heat of 45 degrees summers, and in the cold of -1 degrees winters, I have seen old men crying, and sick people begging the officers so they can enter the city to receive treatment.


The Erbil checkpoint became much more crowded after ISIS invaded Mosul and a big wave of Mosul’s residents fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. But across the two years I stayed in the Kurdish region, I have lied to the officers, played tricks with them and faked the dates of old permit cards so I could access Erbil and meet my love.

In late 2014 I moved to Turkey with Rasha whom I married later, and for the first time in my life I did not have to bribe or call connections or key people in order to get a residency permit. Everything was clear and the process was relatively easy. But I still have renewed my residency two times, as I had to renew it on a yearly basis. I had this sense of insecurity and of the “what if”: what if the Turkish government changed the rules of treating the Syrian refugees, what if I was not allowed to renew my residency for any reason? Where would I go as I cannot go home? What will happen to me?

In July 2016, the Turkey coup attempt has raised the same fears and the same “what if” questions I always had. My newborn son was in the incubator in a faraway child hospital, and we did not know what will happen to us if the coup had succeeded. 

So here I am in Toronto at my Canadian sponsors' family house, with a document that will last for years and with a clear status that will save and protect my rights as a normal human being who doesn’t have to bribe, use dodgy connections, explain whether he is Arab or Kurd, state his religion or swear to the officers that all he said was true. On the other hand, the sponsoring group is offering us with all possible ways of support; introducing us to basic knowledge of our new home country and offering us all sort of help and support. To be honest, this is too good to be true and I am still living in the denial phase.   





Wednesday, 14 December 2016

It's a girl!


What an exciting end of the (sponsorship) year: On December 13 the Abdallahs welcomed their newest family member! Little Scham was born in a Toronto hospital, and is the first Canadian citizen in the family. The baby and mum Sawsan are both doing well, and Aya and Reemas are excited to have a baby sister.

A few days before, the family talked to the CBC's The Current about their first year in Canada, and what lies ahead. There are some worries about what comes after the sponsorship ends, but Sawsan says she feels optimistic. "I feel this is home. I feel this is my country". The interview was aired today. 








Thursday, 24 November 2016

A message to our donors

The members of the Ripple Refugee Project wanted to provide all of you, our generous donors, with an update on the Abdallah family, who arrived from Syria to Canada last December, and regarding other sponsorships and initiatives undertaken by the Ripple Refugee Group.

The Abdallahs are settling well into their new life here in Toronto.  All the family members are working hard to develop their English language skills which is a priority in order to provide them with a solid foundation for their new life. The two youngest family members, who are 6 and 8, are already pretty much fluent while the adults are making great progress. Now with the 12th-month anniversary approaching, attention is turning to finding work so that they can support themselves going forward.

Baby shower for the soon-to-arrive newest family member

IT TAKES A VILLAGE
:  We have had tremendous support in settling this family into their new life from so many different organizations and individuals and we want to thank everyone who has been involved.  While there are too many to mention, we want to highlight the support from the University Health Network (UHN), the Arab Community Centre of Toronto (ACCT), Access Alliance, Dentists, Sunnybrook Hospital, Ryerson University, Lifeline Syria, the many volunteer Arabic-speaking interpreters and members of that community, and from a wide range of other people in the extended Toronto community.

And of course, our refugee sponsorships would not be possible without all of your generous donations - THANK YOU!

UPCOMING ARRIVALS - We are looking forward to welcoming a family of 3 before Christmas, who are arriving from Syria via Turkey with a new born baby in tow.  We also have an application for another family of 3 and for a single young man who is related to the Abdallahs, who should all be here hopefully by mid 2017. The Ripple group plans to continue sponsoring refugees over the coming years - it has been such a rewarding and transformative experience for all of us.

As Ryerson Lifeline Syria has stopped accepting donations for all their sponsorship teams, which we are one of, we will be working with another organization to continue our funding efforts in order to support the sponsorship of more refugee families in the future - Please stand by for an update regarding this new donation channel. 

ON-GOING ADVOCACY AND SUPPORT EFFORTS - From the beginning, an important goal of the Ripple Refugee Project was to advocate to the government and public for the value and importance of the Private Sponsorship model, to encourage people to get involved and to support other private sponsorship groups in whatever way we can. Below are some more recent examples of our efforts in this area:

- We continue to meet with other private sponsorship groups to provide guidance in their efforts

Canada4Refugees.org:  3 of our members were co-founders of the Canada4Refugees group which formed last May in order to advocate for and provide support to the citizen-led refugee resettlement model and initiatives.    

- Advocacy through the media in order to build domestic and international support for Syrian refugee initiatives, the private sponsorship model and to encourage people to get involved: 

a) Our newcomer family was recently featured on BBC International Radio and TV broadcasts (click here to view the heartwarming TV story) which also shows an amazing surprise reunion between the BBC reporter, Lyse Ducet and a Syrian family that was last seen in dire circumstances in Damascus.

b) The family and the Ripple Refugee Project group were also featured in the Globe and Mail (Click Here) 

c) On Dutch TV (starts at minute:17:23) (Click Here).

d) Al Jazeera's TV show, "The Stream" (Click Here), featured The Ripple Refugee Project in its episode on private citizens helping Syrian Refugeesple Refugee Project. 

WISHING YOU ALL THE BEST FOR THE HOLIDAY SEASON

MANY THANKS AGAIN FOR YOUR SUPPORT



Sunday, 13 November 2016

A few things we have learned in the first year

It has been almost one year since the Syrian family of eight we are sponsoring has arrived in Toronto. As we are waiting for a second family to arrive, it’s time to take stock. It has been an extremely eventful, rewarding, but also challenging year.  Here are some of the lessons we have learned.*

It’s a life-changing experience

Although the past year has at times been challenging and frustrating, by and large the sponsorship has been one of the most rewarding experiences many of us have ever had. We have not only gained the friendship of a Syrian newcomer family, but we have also grown together as a group and felt part of a larger community, of something bigger than ourselves. While sponsoring a family is a small act in the big scheme of things, it has completely transformed not only this family’s, but also our lives in more ways than we could have imagined.

It’s a big commitment

Several times it hit us what a big commitment we had taken on. All of a sudden we were responsible for eight complete strangers who did not speak a word of English, had never traveled anywhere besides Syria and Lebanon and did not know how things worked in Canada. It was very daunting - almost like adopting a child. Especially at the beginning, settling in the family was very time-consuming and quite challenging because we did not speak each other’s language. The commitment does not stop once the family has moved into an apartment, has all their documents and is enrolled in English lessons. Not only does the practical support continue, but it becomes increasingly an emotional commitment, one that does not stop once the sponsorship year is over. Several of us have formed strong ties with the family, and we hope that the sponsorship relationship will turn into a lasting friendship.  

The family invited us to an Iftar meal during their first Ramadan in Canada

It takes a village

We are very fortunate that the members of our group have a wide range of professional backgrounds - such as health, education and human resources - which made dividing and tackling the multitude of tasks of the settlement process a lot easier. But it was much more than our group that helped settle in the family. Several dentists have provided their services for free. A family we did not previously know, offered temporary housing.  Several community groups collected goods and clothes for newcomers. Within hours of sending a request to our networks, a complete set of baby items – from a stroller to a crib – had been donated for the soon-to-arrive newest member of the family. Ryerson students mentored one of the sons of the family who wants to study here. Several organizations, such as the Arab community center, have given us invaluable support when needed. This amazing outpouring of help from many Canadians has been one of the most positive experiences during our sponsorship year.

Manage expectations

Before we took on the sponsorship, an experienced private sponsor gave us an important piece of advice that helped us manage expectations from the outset: It’s important to remember that the sponsors’ primary job is to settle in refugees as best as they can. If they become friends with the newcomers, that’s an added bonus, but don’t be disappointed if this does not happen, or if you don’t get along. (Luckily for us, we got on really well with the family from day one).
We also realized that a number of our expectations for settling in a newcomer family are driven by our cultural, social and educational background and bias – such as that women should be looking for work. It is important to communicate openly, to recognize cultural and social differences and adjust expectations.

An outing with the family to Niagara Falls

Don’t be scared of making mistakes

None of our group members had a lot of experience with Arab culture and a few mistakes were made. During one of our first visits to the family, for example, I kissed both the women and the men on the cheeks, suddenly realizing that this was probably a complete cultural faux pas. The family was completely unfazed, however, and has always been very forgiving and tolerant of our ignorance. Despite our cultural and social differences, we share a common humanity and emotional bond, and we found that it’s better to jump right in and make a few mistakes than being too shy and scared to interact with newcomers from a different culture with limited knowledge of English.

Don’t infantilize

Because the family we are sponsoring did initially not speak any English and did not know their way around, we took on a large number of jobs at the beginning – booking doctor and other appointments, for example, picking them up and driving them around, sometimes making decisions on their behalf. It is a fine line between helping people settle in and infantilizing them, making them dependent on our support. This goes both ways – the family often continued to ask for support even when we felt they could take on the task themselves. It is not always easy to figure out the right balance.


Being in Canada does not mean being happy ever after

Some people may expect that refugees’ problems are over once they reach Canada, where they are safe and have a roof over their heads. But while they are physically here – and grateful for the warm welcome they have received in Canada - their minds are often still back home. Gruesome images and news reports from the war in Syria are continuously coming in on various electronic devices. There is a constant stream of calls and messages from loved ones who are still in Syria or are refugees in neighbouring countries. The constant worry, and the guilt of being here and not being able to help, can be overwhelming, and makes settling in more difficult. Many sponsorship groups will face the challenge of being asked to sponsor additional family members.

Don’t let setbacks get you down

As with many things in life, sponsoring a refugee family is not always smooth sailing. There are many ups but also quite a few downs - unexpected challenges and frustrations.  It is important to accept that setbacks are normal - it does not mean that the settlement is unsuccessful.

Some of the Ripple Refugee group members at a meeting

Have a strong core group

While our group is relatively big, only a handful of people are actively engaged on a regular basis. Some members are traveling a lot, others are busy with work and family and only sporadically interact with our sponsored family. It is vital to have a strong leader and a small group of committed, hands-on members who continuously give the sponsored family not only practical, but also emotional support throughout the year. Before deciding to sponsor refugees, groups should discuss very clearly if members are around throughout the year, and are willing to be involved on a regular basis. Less engaged members can support the settlement activities on an ad hoc basis.

Do your homework

When we decided to sponsor refugees there were not many resources available. This has changed, and I would highly recommend to anyone thinking about sponsorship to either do a training with the Refugee SponsorshipTraining Program , or read one of the resources that are available, such as the Lifeline Syria sponsorship handbook.




*These personal reflections were written by RRP member Claudia Blume and don’t necessarily reflect the views of all members of the group

Friday, 9 September 2016

The benefits of private refugee sponsorship

Canada is unique in the world in having a program, the Privately Sponsored Refugee (PSR) program, wherein private citizens can form groups to sponsor and help settle refugees.  In 1986, this program won the UN’s Nansen Medal, the only time a whole country has been recognized by this refugee-focused award.  

Based on Canadian immigration department studies, refugees settled through the PSR model have much better long term outcomes than those who are settled by Government agencies.  For example, when compared to Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) after a year or two, PSRs have higher levels of English proficiency, are more likely to be working and at higher wage levels, are less likely to be relying on government agencies or financial support, report greater connection to their community and to the country and are less likely to return to their previous home country. 

There are a number of other very important direct and indirect benefits of the PSR model for settling refugees versus the more common Government-agency settlement model.  To begin with, since PSR’s are largely or wholly paid for out of private donations, this refugee settlement program is much more cost effective, from a Canadian taxpayer point of view.  Furthermore, for the private citizens who are involved, it is a real participatory, community-building experience which helps foster neighborhood relationships, enable cross-cultural understanding, build grass-roots support for refugee issues, increase appreciation for our communities and our country, and enhance citizens’ awareness of the challenges faced by the lower-income segments in our society.


Despite its many documented benefits versus the GAR model for settling refugees, government support for the PSR model has been modest, to say the least, over the last 40 years and it remains an under-promoted and underfunded program.   The general public’s interest and participation in the program has undergone enormous volatility over the years.  There was a major peak in 1979 / 1980 as a response to the so-called Vietnamese Boat-People crisis.   Then, after a long period of relatively low volumes with the exception of a spike during the Bosnian war, interest in the program has once again dramatically risen during the last 12 months as a result of the Syrian Crisis.  Outside of these 3 peak periods, participation in this program has been narrowly focused in faith communities or ethnic organizations rather than having a broader involvement from Canadian society as a whole.

It is also important to note that although PSR groups are executing on an important, sensitive, and complex project, that of settling and integrating into our communities vulnerable and, in some cases, traumatized people from widely different backgrounds, the Canadians who undertake these projects do so with little or no support, training, experience or qualifications.  The lack of advocates or centralized comprehensive resource supports for PSR groups leads them to feel like they are ‘going it alone’, ‘making it up as they go along’ and ‘reinventing the wheel’ in their efforts to settle refugees. 

By Andrew FitzGerald. This post has also been published on the Canada4Refugees blog. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Cooking with Nahla

Our group members spent a lot of time since the Abdallahs' arrival in December helping the family members navigate life in Toronto, trying to introduce them to Canadian life and culture. 

We realized that this has often been a one-way street. Because of the language barrier (which is getting smaller every day!) it has been more difficult for the family to share their culture and traditions with us. 
But one language is universal: food! We were very fortunate that Nahla, the matriarch of the family, and her daughter-in-law Sawsan showed us how to prepare some of their very delicious Syrian dishes. When we ate together – after patriarch Abdallah had given a beautiful Arabic blessing – we truly felt like one big family.

The women do not follow written recipes but we have taken notes of the ingredients and steps involved in making the dishes – we hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we did!




Chicken à la Nahla

1. Remove skin from chicken drumsticks, place them in big pot with boiling water
2. Add cinnamon powder and cinnamon sticks, cardamom, onion slices, salt, ginger, turmeric and coriander. Boil chicken in broth for 45 minutes
3. Peel potatoes, cut them into thin slices
4. Deep fry potato slices in batches, set aside.
5. Deep fry onion slices
6. Place one layer of fried potato slices on bottom of large casserole.
7. Add boiled chicken drumsticks on top. Add some of the chicken stock. Keep the rest for rice.
8. Add sliced onions and another layer of deep-fried potato slices
9. Put casserole in oven for 20 minutes or cook on stove for another 20 minutes
10. Mix freshly-squeezed lemon juice and minced garlic. Pour some of the mixture over the chicken casserole before serving

Syrian salad

1. Cut cucumbers, green peppers, carrots and tomatoes into small pieces
2. Chop mint, parsley and green salad
3. Mix in large bowl
4. Pour rest of the lemon-garlic mixture over the salad before serving







Fatteh

1. Cut pita bread into thin stripes
2. Deep-fry pita slices until crispy. Put aside
3. In large bowl, mix 2 containers of joghurt with two containers of hummus.
4. Add some Tahini
5. Add garlic, 1 spoonful of cardamom and mix well
6. Empty two chickpea containers with liquid into cooking pot, boil for a few minutes
7. Place pita strips on bottom of casserole dish
8. Ladle joghurt-hummus mix on pita strips
9. Sprinkle dish with cayenne pepper and cumin
10. Ladle heated chickpeas onto dish
11. Heat up ghee (optional), pour over Fatteh before serving


Rice à la Nahla
Fatteh, salad and Nahla's chicken dish

1. Mix dry rice with oil and ghee
2. Add salt, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and coriander
3. Add left-over chicken stock, with come chicken pieces
4. Bring to boil






By Claudia Blume

Friday, 8 April 2016

URGENT: Please tell your Liberal MP before Monday that the government needs to continue its support for Syrian refugees

As you may have read in the newspapers, it has become apparent to Private Sponsorship groups that the Canadian Government is pulling back in its support for Syrian Refugees now that they have met their election promise.

Yesterday the Ripple Refugee Group's chair Andrew FitzGerald, along with former Toronto mayor John Sewell and two other representatives from Private Sponsorship groups, had a private meeting with Immigration Minister McCallum in order to encourage continued Canadian government prioritization for the Private Sponsorship program for Syrian Refugees.

As there is a Liberal Party caucus meeting early next week to review their overall commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis, we encourage all of you to write to your local Liberal MP (you can find contact details for your MP here) copying Immigration Minister McCallum (email: john.mccallum@parl.gc.ca) to emphasize your strong support for continued focus on Syrian Refugees initiatives.


In particular, we want to communicate that 


1) We don't agree with the Government that any new applications, even if they are fully paid for and settled by private sponsorship groups, should be subject to overall refugee caps and be processed in the normal 24 - 42 month time frame.   This is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and we have mobilized and privately-funded citizen groups ready to help out - lets not waste that resource!  


If this becomes government policy, as it looks likely to happen, then thousands of Private Sponsorship groups who have raised money and made preparations to settle Syrian families will have to wait several years or more before their applications are processed. 


2) Domestic and overseas immigration staffing resources should be restored to Feb. 2016 

levels to expedite the arrival of already approved Syrian refugee families to Canada.  Waiting until the end of 2016, or early 2017, as the government has indicated is the new timeline, for those whose applications are already in process puts the refugee families in danger given their precarious overseas living arrangements. 

We are at a turning point in this nation-wide, grassroots humanitarian project - but without government support it will all come to naught.  


Please do communicate with your Liberal MP and Minister McCallum as soon as possible to convey your strong support for this historical grassroots humanitarian initiative that Private Sponsorship groups represent.
.