From the heart: Syrian newcomers tell their stories of Canada

27 Feb From the heart: Syrian newcomers tell their stories of Canada

As four young Syrian newcomers, aged between 20 and 26 years of age, come together to meet with Farah Barakat, their former Canadian Orientation Abroad trainer from Lebanon, they speak of war and unimaginable losses, of new beginnings and about overcoming many challenges abroad and in Canada. What they each have in common is the fact that they are now feeling safe in Canada and rebuilding their new lives from scratch. 

Their respective stories all begin with their fear of the unknown, while still in Lebanon, and their strength to overcome all challenges head-first in Canada. Here are their stories.


Farah Barakat

COA Facilitator

Story 1: Mohannad – Welcome to Canada, you are the top employee of the year!

My name is Mohannad and I am originally from Aleppo, Syria. I lived with my family, in Beirut, for 4 years before my sponsorship application was finally accepted by the Canadian government. Then, in September 2016, I found my way to Ottawa, with the assistance of IOM.  It was to be the longest day of my life, ever, yet the most exciting and unforgettable day too.

My first two weeks in Canada went relatively well, though I kept thinking that this would likely not work long-term for me.  In the back of my mind, I was already planning to go back to Lebanon where I had started to establish a new life for myself.  Surprisingly, life took a different turn and these feelings gradually slipped away.   After only 2 weeks, I had embarked on that first phase of culture shock, the “honeymoon phase”, as had been discussed in the COA Beirut session.  I was like a tourist.  Eventually, reality hit me.

I had been unable to complete my studies back in Aleppo, and neither in the four years that I lived in Lebanon.  In Lebanon, everything was a matter of survival and education was a luxury few could afford.   I was lucky enough to find a job in Beirut; working in a clothing store to support my family.   Now, it was time to get back into a school and complete my education.


Once in Ottawa, the first things I did were to register for the social insurance number, find a family doctor, and then take a placement test for my English language courses at YMCA Ottawa.   I was happy to be admitted at an intermediate level and started attending English classes 3 days a week and embarked on a part-time work and part-time study journey.

In parallel, I started asking around for job opportunities and, as we had discussed in COA, I started with the people closest to me.   My aunt, who happened to be one of my sponsors, worked at one of Tim Horton’s branches in Orleans.  She managed to convince her manager to grant me an internship opportunity to help me integrate and start practicing the language. But the funny part was that soon after I started, my supervisors offered me a part-time job that ideally matched my class schedule.

It was only then that I started to understand that the universe is sending us some positive signs, that we must listen, accept, and at times, make that leap of faith.

Every end of year, Tim Horton’s would choose the one staff that is most dedicated to his work, to his team, and who contributes in the overall business success in the branch.   In a meeting with the management team, they acknowledged the expansion of Tim Horton’s with 10 new branches and went on to recognize one staff.   A person who was able to demonstrate, over a short period of time, that there are no obstacles that can prevent someone from another culture, who speaks a different language and who is totally new to the Canadian society from making the best with his first entry-level job.  A job Mohannad grew to love because of the many interactions it gave him to meet people and improve his English.  What he remembers is those words:  “Please join me in congratulating Mohannad! “ I was “the top employee of the branch”, out of 22 other dedicated staff, and I won a valuable prize after only 2 months in service.

It was a total shock for me, yet a reminder to anyone who believes in something more and something better, to never give up and press on with proving themselves and take their chances in the Canadian society as hard work can be spotted, recognized and lead to higher heights.

Now, I am a part-time student, a part-time staff, and a full time new Canadian life-builder in between!

Since speaking with COA, Muhannad continues to live and thrive in Ottawa. He has been promoted to baker at Tim Hortons, and has rented his first family home using his own money.

Story 2: Dani – From banking in Syria to telecommunication in Canada, steady steps in the services sector!


My name is Dani and I am 25 years old. I came to Canada in September 2016 and settled down in Toronto, Ontario.

The period before my arrival in Canada was the most difficult, when decisions were crucial, and the changes we were undergoing as a family were critically radical.

My family and I lived in Beirut after fleeing the war in Syria, my home country.  I spent this period, in Lebanon, doing volunteer work for the first time.   This volunteer work led me to co-found “Live Love Syria”, a Syrian project that aims to support Syrian youth.  In doing this, I delved deeper into the idea of ​​giving without pay.  In my earlier life in Syria, I had worked for six years at the Bemo Saudi-French Bank in Syria, during which I obtained my university degree in Economics, specializing in Banking and Finance.

However, these successive successes were accompanied by difficult times for me and my family in Lebanon.  With the arrival of refugees in Lebanon, the country quickly doubled its population.   The economic situation, in general, was extremely difficult for everyone.  On the professional level, as a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, I could not expect to find a job that suited my professional qualifications. Though I did often think of returning to Syria, the security situation never realistically allowed us to return.   We almost always felt alone and abandoned; that is, until the day we were informed about the date of our departure to Canada by the International Organization for Migration.  It is also at that time that we were invited to attend a pre-departure orientation session.

Though we knew nothing about the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) program, our expectations for the orientation session were somehow not high, like everything else we had so far experienced in Lebanon.   But, contrary to our expectations, it was very informative and it helped us, as a family, to understand how things worked in Canada – from the very first steps, gaining stability through language, employment and a network of friends, understanding the Canadian society and making a home for ourselves in that new country.  I had many questions to ask and all of them were answered in a reassuring way.  It was also equally nice to meet other Syrian families, also on their way to Canada, and facing the same losses and taking the same leap of faith.  We all became instant friends and expressed the hope to meet again in Canada.  Finally, on September 27, 2016, I arrived in Canada.

I spent the first two days working on official papers with the Canadian government, opening a bank account, searching for a house to rent, buying some furniture and getting the place ready, with the help of sponsors, to host my parents who were to arrive a month later.   In these first few weeks, I learned a lot about my new surroundings, Canadian laws and regulations and had an in-depth look into the Canadian labour market and its requirements.   Gradually, the fear of not finding a job for my own skills-set disappeared and I started my job search.

My friends and relatives had a great role to play in guiding me in these first steps. After several discussions, I concluded that, after a six-year break from banking in Syria, I needed to work on my technical skills.  I started by amending my resume to fit Canadian standards. I subsequently showed it to a relative who praised it by stating that the advantages and experiences I have may be required by a telecommunications company nowadays in Toronto. So I applied for job vacancies at many telecommunications companies and it was only a short time later that I received a call from HR to schedule an interview with Rogers Telecom.

I still recall how the interview went on that day.  I walked out of the building and the interviewers’ last sentence was still ringing in my head:  “Welcome as a new member in our team!”   Just like that!

October 13, 2016 is a day I will never forget. It marks the date I got my first job in Canada as a sales associate at one of Rogers’ branches.

However, and as we all know, on the road to success, there must also be obstacles! The most significant challenge facing young newcomers in Canada is the need to have Canadian experience despite the many practical and professional experiences that newcomers may bring with them. In addition, the English language in Canada is different from the one we learn in our country. There are also differences in the work culture in Canada.   It is a long process of adjustments.

Last but not least, newcomers must accept the idea of ​​“change”, in terms of work patterns in Canada, and to accept functions that may be less than the desired ambition.  Some would translate this into a loss of face, on a personal level, if one thinks about it too deeply, but I believe that there are no bad jobs in Canada and one must sometimes start at the bottom.

Therefore, I advise youth newcomers not to look back.  The past is behind and it is time to give birth to a new personality, and to focus on learning the language because it is the one critical tool that will lead to adaptation and coexistence within the new society.

“Finally, let them ask themselves, before their departure, as we did in the COA session, what do they want to achieve in Canada and to be prepared to pursue these goals because I know that they will eventually get there”, added Dani.

Dani intends to pursue his graduate studies in finance, and he has begun to correspond with several universities in Toronto, but this issue might take some time and may be postponed to the next year because enrolling in such programs requires several entry exams like TOEFEL, GRE, GMAT and IELTS and Dani will need a period of time to prepare for them.

Keeping with his goals in finance, Dani is now working successfully as a bank employee at the Royal Bank of Canada. He lives and works in Toronto, Ontario.

Story 3: Karim – Don’t procrastinate, take new opportunities as they arise!

As for Karim, Dani’s younger brother, 20 years old of age, he came with his family to Canada on October 31, 2016. At the beginning, Karim was not working, as he was taking high school classes and preparing for the final exams at his high school in Syria. He was confused and felt much pressured as he was preparing for the finals, alone and without any help.

“It was a wonderful feeling, I had a dream to come with my family to Canada and it came true just before my eyes”, said Karim when he was questioned about his feelings soon after landing, on a breezy October day. My first days were interesting, feeling enthusiastic with every new procedure I was undergoing, as I was embarking on my Canadian journey, with the opening of a bank account in my name (for the first time), getting the social security number and starting to look for a job.

“COA was an eye-opener and it contributed in my decision-making”

Karim began visiting stores and shops close to home, browsing online recruitment sites and thus applied for many jobs, including a position at Walmart. “After only 23 days, I was accepted for an assistant position at one of its branches. This post has influenced my new lifestyle as it has forced me to learn to organize my time”, said Karim.

Karim believes that there are few challenges waiting for youth, except language, but being an optimist, he also believes that this lack of language skills has many solutions.  He says that he practices it daily at his place of work and that socializing with others contributes effectively to improving his language skills.

“The COA session was an eye-opener on the most needed steps to follow after arrival, and language was the main topic.  I still remember how much time we took to discuss this matter and its importance, and the tools that would help us improve our language skills during group brainstorming work”, Karim said.

He advises fellow youth newcomers not to be ashamed to ask questions and encourages them to seek answers and guidance from the surrounding community, as it is full of experts on Canadian life and all are open to others and ready to help.  Karim stresses that one should not worry too much about weak language skills; adding that Canadians are friendly people, that they accept others and are fully aware that we, as newcomers, need time to learn and master the language.  These Canadians are the reason why we always feel welcome and encouraged as they make us feel they were once in our place.

Finally, Karim advises not to postpone opportunities to a later stage, but to seize opportunities as soon as they arise because opportunities may not come twice.

Karim is planning to get his high school certification and start university.  He would like to study medicine; a dream he has had since childhood but would never thought, in a million years, that this dream could possibly come true in Canada.

Story 4: Carla – A wise young woman giving back to society!

I departed Lebanon on the 21st of September and landed in Canada on the 22nd. I finally settled with my family in Toronto, Ontario!

I am Carla, 25 years old, coming from Damascus, Syria.

I moved from Syria to Lebanon in 2011 where I studied Nutritional Science at the University of Balamand, in northern Lebanon.  I lived in university dormitory with a roommate up to 2015. In 2015, when my parents joined me in Lebanon we rented an apartment near the university and I started an Internship at a hospital in Tripoli while working part-time in a nearby restaurant .We did not face any major problems in Lebanon, neither with the government since our residential status was legal.

The day I arrived in Canada might never be forgotten for the rest of my life. I was so energetic, positive and not even tired from the long flight. I spent the first two weeks exploring downtown Toronto and the area where I live, taking the subway and learning more about the transportation system, which is very easy and simple. However, my family and I were sponsored by a company called Canadian Dealer Lease Services Inc. The company’s management did their best to make it as easy as possible for us to learn about Canada and our new city, register my little brother in school, and to help us prepare for the winter, with proper clothing, footwear, etc. At the end of the day, it is not easy to move to a completely different country, to have someone there to teach you about the Canadian system and so on. So, I can say that “behind every life-changing experience, there is someone who made it happen”.

As for the pre-departure phase, it was absolutely necessary to attend the orientation session provided by the Canadian government through COA Beirut.   It was very beneficial in many ways since it gives a general idea and an in-depth look at the Canadians’ daily life, perceptions and behaviour. Also, it teaches newcomers the best practices in order for us to be easily and smoothly integrated, to be more opened and to feel comfortable in the new society – the one that we will soon be a part of.  The orientation makes it easier for newcomers to start accepting the Canadian society which might be very difficult if they do not have any previous background information.


Emphasizing the importance of work for newcomers in Canada encouraged me to start working immediately since I spoke English and was job-ready.  The opportunity was available, because once again, my sponsor, which is a car leasing company, had offered me a job as soon as I landed in Canada, so I can say it was luck, but I am also qualified for the job since, in addition to English fluency, I am computer-literate and these two components are the most important factors in order to find a job in Canada. Not to forget that connections and networking in Canada are also very important.

I am now working as an insurance tracking specialist, which helped me become aware of many policies of the Canadian government and made me familiar with all the provinces’ names and regions. My job also has made my English more solid, and has definitely boosted my self-confidence! We, newcomers, need to make success happen and we need to integrate properly into the welcoming Canadian community.

The work environment is more or less similar to what we had in Syria, like there is stress, problems, and long shifts. Furthermore, some youth may feel that they are not making enough money with respect to the bills that they have to pay each month in Canada.   This might cause some lack of motivation. However, life on the minimum wage, with good budgeting skills, can offer a respectful and dignified way of life in Canada. Therewith, the government has solid rules to protect workers and no one can disrespect or harm another person without getting penalties or even a criminal record. Nevertheless, youth should be always careful and alert before signing a job contract because some companies have the right to fire their worker for no valid reason. On the other hand, Canada is full of opportunities in many fields, to the extent that we really need to keep an open eye and roam around.

“Reach out to SPOs, they are always there to help”

Despite the short period I spent in Toronto, I was able to conclude that here, an important thing is the university degree, or otherwise people will be stuck in just making the minimum wage and not improving their life quality. Especially in Canada where the process of learning and getting degrees never ends. Accordingly, I am planning to continue in the health field and hopefully get accepted in medical school by 2018. However, I also have a plan B which is to seek equivalence of my nutritional sciences and dietetics degree and work in my field again.

From my position, as newcomer freshly embarking on her brand new journey, I allow myself to advise future newcomers, particularly youth and their parents who intend to come to Canada.  I want to advise them to work first on their second language, either French or English. Then to try to find a job through SPOs that are funded to help newcomers, like COSTI and YMCA in my case, and many others. Finally, they should remain positive despite everything they will go through since it has never been easy for anyone to move and start all over again from scratch.