Over the past year, Canada has welcomed an influx of Syrian refugees, with an average of over 2700 a month, or about 90 a day. Many of them have settled down in Toronto, scattering around different communities across the city. Surprisingly, I’ve recently found out that a family of Syrian refugees has lived in my Asian-centered neighborhood.
Chinese Canadians and Syrian refugees are two different ethnic groups in Canada, with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds and little social interactions with each other. For many Chinese Canadians, Syrian refugees are seemingly remote, odd and intimidating. They hail from a Middle East country that forms the base of terrorist organizations and practice a religion deemed violent and aggressive.
But in fact, most Syrian refugees are victims of the terror and violence. Despite the racial stereotype, the pain and hardship faced by Syrian refugees in their home country have fueled concerns and sympathies from some Chinese Canadians. Also, similar experiences as newcomers in the adopted country have brought the two ethnic groups together, allowing them to form a unique bond in multicultural Canada. On a warm and starry night, and over coffee, fruits, and snacks, my Syrian neighbor Ursula – a tall and elegant woman in her early 40s --shared with me about her family’s tragic life in a war-torn country, as well as a challenging refugee journey after fleeing their hometown.
Ursula told me, through her imperfect English, that Syria was a beautiful, affluent country before the war, offering a clean environment and stunning landscape. Life there was easy, convenient and comfortable back then, with people enjoying spacious living conditions, ample food supplies, and enriched cultural life. Most families could rely on husbands’ salaries to get by, and women normally did not have to work. But because of its abundant resources of oil and wealth, the country has become the deadly targets of racial conflicts and civil wars，being repeatedly hit by ISIS drone strikes, Russia attacks, and US air raids. The violence and war have wiped out country’s wealth and taken everything away from Syrian people.
“My father used to own a big cherry farm, with hundreds of cherry and fruit trees, but an ISIS bomb had destroyed them all, leaving us with barely anything,” said Ursula in sadness.
“We then joined millions of Syrians who have fled their homes and took shelter in Lebanon, hoping the war would end soon. But three years later, after seeing no end to the conflicts and violence, we had decided to uproot our whole family and moved to Canada as refugees.”
But their transition to life in Canada hasn’t been seamless. Ursula said that many Syrian refugees were perceived, through the racial stereotype lens, as terrorists or posing a threat to the national security. In a recent family trip to Niagara, they were misguided by GPS and accidentally arrived at the US border. Finding out that they were Syrians, the border guard detained them for five hours without any justifiable ground.
“Once they heard that we were from Syria, they saw us like ghosts,” said Ursula.
Syrian refugees are facing challenges in integrating into Canada, an experience that would resonate well with all newcomers.
To adapt to her new lives in Canada, Ursula has decided to leave the kitchen and abandon Syrian women traditional role as a housewife. “In Canada, we’ve lost most of our social support system in the home country, and that has made me depressed, especially in the cold, snowy and icy winter,” said Ursula. “That was why I needed to go out of the home and find a job. Apart from the financial assistance to the family, it can provide me with an opportunity to improve English and build up a social network in Canada.”
But finding a job in Canada proves to be difficult for someone who had never gone through a job searching process in her hometown and was facing a language barrier in the adopted country. Despite her language talents and being able to speak three languages –including Arabic and Turkish, she found herself struggling with English after landing in Canada.
“I didn’t realize how important English is until we came here,” said Ursula. “The language barrier has left many of us struggling in building a life here.”
Despite the challenges, she made the first step to success. On that night, she told me that she would soon start her new job at a high-end shoe store in Scarborough as a saleswoman. Being happy for her job searching success, I also told her that from now on, she could count me as a friend.
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