New beginnings for a group of Syrian refugees resettled out of Egypt

19 Sep New beginnings for a group of Syrian refugees resettled out of Egypt

On a sunny morning, in one of Alexandria’s hotels, nineteen Syrian refugees, along with their children, are gathered in a meeting room to learn about their upcoming new life in Canada. They are a part of the accelerated movement of 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada.

Habiba Ramadan

COA Facilitator in Cairo, Egypt

“Is it too cold in Canada? Will I have to remove my headscarf? Will my autistic child get the health care he needs? Will my rights as an employee and as a refugee be protected under Canadian law? What will our lodging look like? Will it be heated? Will public transportation be accessible?”

One can feel a palpable mix of excitement and apprehension as curiosity, sadness, despair, agony, surprise and relief fill the atmosphere in the Canadian training room.

While children are busy playing in one corner of the room, parents give their full attention to the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) half-day presentation.

The facilitator starts off with an ice-breaker in order to get the refugee participants to relax and open up. Although most of them do not know each other, they share the same cultural background, similar stories about the Syrian conflict and now the same destiny.  Group activities will help the group bond and build linkages that will hopefully continue in Canada.

A group of Syrian refugees proudly holding the Canadian flag at the end of a pre-departure briefing. (February 2016)
A group of Syrian refugees proudly holding the Canadian flag at the end of a pre-departure briefing. (February 2016)

With a comforting smile on her face, the facilitator explains what Canada looks like; its geography, population, and seasons; how the education and health systems work; what to expect from the Government of Canada, service-provider organizations and Canadians; what the rights and obligations of resettled Syrians are; and how to prepare for a smooth and successful transition and adaptation to their new society.

Throughout the briefing, the floor is open for questions and discussion. Participants voice their concerns; the most common one being the fear of the unknown.

Although I am excited and grateful that my family has been granted this opportunity to resettle in Canada, I am worried about how we will settle in. We barely speak English. We do not know anyone in Canada and I am worried that my kids may not be happy there” said one of the participants.

Most participants bring their children to the COA sessions. In this Alexandria briefing photo, a group of young Syrians are seen colouring in the child-minding room. Alexandria, Egypt (February 2016)
Most participants bring their children to the COA sessions. In this Alexandria briefing photo, a group of young Syrians are seen colouring in the child-minding room. Alexandria, Egypt (February 2016)

The facilitator quickly addresses this participant’s concerns; explaining that children will likely integrate into the new society faster than adults, that they will make friends rapidly and pick up the language more easily. She reiterates that although the first few months will be more difficult, it is up to each of them to fully embrace this new resettlement opportunity, to stay positive, and to learn something new every day- especially English or French language.

One of the mothers adds that she is scared that her kids will grow up in Canada not knowing their country of origin, their family genealogy, and their religion. “Will they be able to attend Friday prayers?” she asks, anxiously.

One of the Syrian participants volunteers to respond to her, highlighting that it is the family’s role to teach their children about their roots and culture. The facilitator uses this opportunity to build on the participant’s contribution to further emphasize important messages. While the Canadian public education system does not encompass religious instruction, everyone has the freedom to practice their religion as freely as they wish, at home or at any place of worship they choose to go to. She adds that Friday is not a prayer or public holiday in Canada, but that  places of worship will be available in their new city and community.

The briefing goes on for another couple of hours, giving room for everyone to voice their concerns and ambitions; and to have all of their inquiries answered.  As they prepare to leave, the facilitator feels more excitement than apprehension in the room; and so is the power of transmitting information when refugees need it the most.

At the end, one of the participants approaches the facilitator with a warm smile on her face, “Thank you very much for your patience and elaborate responses. I came here with so many questions and worries. Now, I know what to expect when I arrive in Canada.”

The Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) program is funded by the Government of Canada and has been implemented in Egypt since 2001.

During the winter of 2015-16, COA was instrumental in providing basic information and orientation to Syrian refugees resettled out of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.

From November 2015 to March 2016, COA distributed Arabic copies of its orientation resources to all Syrian refugees being resettled as part of this special operation. Large quantities of the COA Handbook, COA Workbook, and other key printed resources were placed in the COA bags. The COA Management Team, supported by COA staff and IOM Operational Teams in the field, have worked tirelessly to plan, organize and implement a large-scale distribution operation and whenever possible, the delivery of short information briefings.

At the end of March 2016, IOM had assisted the Government of Canada in the resettlement of 25,244 Syrian refugees. Every single Syrian family resettled as part of this operation received the information materials prepared by COA. Some, like the group discussed in the present article, were also provided with briefings and able to discuss their upcoming resettlement with the COA team.