In January of 2016, New Brunswickers were busy preparing for an influx of newcomers as over 25,000 Syrian refugees entered the country, fleeing their war-torn homes.
New Brunswick, a province whose immigrant population is 4.6 per cent—quite low compared to the national average of 22 per cent—broke province population records when it settled the largest number of refugees per capita in the country.
A province that sees so little immigration, however, was not equipped with settlement services for such a large newcomer population; Alex Leblanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC), said that communities have played an essential role in providing support in the newcomer’s integration.
“New Brunswick recognized quickly that we needed to leverage the goodwill and the capacity of our community and so they got involved—and now it’s a great combination between the formal government-funded supports, but also that natural support from community.” says Leblanc.
A Syrian family in Saint John offers one example of how their community created a welcoming environment, going above and beyond to ensure they felt safe and secure in their new home.
The difference of a helping hand
Mohamad and Latifa Aldaher lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon for four years before they came to Canada on Jan. 1, 2016, along with their three children Saada, Hasan and Sally. The couple welcomed a new baby boy, Youssef, born in Saint John a year after their arrival.
UNB alumna Catherine Chiasson and her husband Paul-Emile, former UNBSJ professor in the Faculty of Education, were one of the four welcome teams assigned to the Aldaher family upon their arrival.
“The Saint John YMCA is usually the organization that welcomes any immigrants, refugees to Saint John. Because there was going to be 500 refugees arriving in a very short period of time, they put a call out to social media, friends of friends—anybody that can come and help us,” said Chiasson.
“[They] put on a training session at the Y beforehand and they had some people that had come previously from other parts that were Arabic-speaking and knew a little bit about the Muslim culture. They told us a little bit about their customs—that we would probably expect to see the women with their hijabs and modest dress…We learned about halal foods and that sort of thing.”
Chiasson says the initial volunteer commitment was only a six-week period following the Aldaher’s arrival—but that the welcome teams grew close with the family and have stayed involved in their lives to this day, as they quickly realized the integration process would last much longer than six weeks.
“One of the differences that we really found with our Syrian family was that they were very open and very trusting. Like the day after they arrived, I had their kids in my car and I left! And they said, ‘okay, see you later.’” Chiasson noted.
“Like they didn’t know me, they didn’t know where I was going and I had two of their children in my car.”
For the Aldahers—who arrived in Saint John very tired and very confused about how they were going to function in this strange country with its different language and culture—the love and support they’ve received from their welcome teams has made all the difference in the world.
Latifa says that the first time she saw Catherine and the others, “my heart [saw] my family.”
Mohamad recalls emerging from the airplane and seeing the welcome teams clapping and waving flags—but at that time, he didn’t believe they were there for the Aldahers; he agrees with Latifa that they are family now and have helped their transition in countless ways.
“Because I don’t know anything here. I cannot speak English and I want to buy some food for my children, [would I use] that road, or that road or that road? I don’t know.” Mohamad explained, regarding his initial confusion.
“[The welcome teams] help me with anything: food and a real house, and for education for my children, and the hospital; with anything, they help me…I think this gives me trust. I trust—when she took my children, I trusted her.”
Last fall, one of the welcome team families co-signed a mortgage with the Aldaher family on their first home, after they had moved between a couple of apartments. Mohamad drives the family around in their van, which Latifa is now learning to operate. Two months ago, Latifa got a job in childcare—and in the past two weeks, Mohamad began working in construction.
This is quite a different reality from their life in Lebanon, where the whole family (plus the families of Mohamad’s two brothers), slept on the floor in a ten-by-ten foot room. Their refugee status provided them no claim to education or healthcare—and while their oldest daughter Saada was able to attend an American school for two months before they left, Mohamad’s nephew died of illness in their home after the hospital refused to admit him without payment.
“When you’re a refugee, it’s just like you’re in a holding space; nothing happens until you can immigrate somewhere.” says Chiasson. “So it’s really hard being a refugee; basically it’s survival.”
While they’re still in the process of learning English, classes at the YMCA, conversations with their welcome teams and now at their workplaces, plus translation assistance from Saada—who is almost 10 and quickly becoming comfortable with English in her new school environment—are helping the Aldahers make progress.
Creating a culture of immigration in New Brunswick
The Multicultural Association of Fredericton’s (MCAF) First Friends program and the Family Connections program coordinated by Moncton’s Multicultural Association and municipality provided similar support to the Saint John YMCA for refugees settling in their areas.
The settlement agencies in New Brunswick’s various cities are all member-organizations of the NBMC, which Leblanc says is an umbrella to thirteen associations and three provincial ethno-cultural organizations. The NBMC works to promote, support and connect immigration services throughout the province.
“Right now [we’re] developing an action plan to address five priority areas that we think will help improve the integration experience for newcomers, and kind of educate and build capacity within the provincial public service,” said Leblanc.
“Those priorities are training and education for adults, transition to education and employment for youth, essential services like Service New Brunswick—getting your driver’s license, medicare, making sure that that’s a streamlined process and it’s sensitive to a newcomer client—health and mental health and transitioning off of social development services.”
According to Leblanc, many refugees require income assistance, housing subsidies and health cards as they begin their settlement process, and the province has begun examining ways that it can help newcomers become more financially independent.
However, Leblanc believes that with the right support, the newcomer population will be an important addition to the province—particularly the newcomer youth.
“The average family size for the Syrians was like 6.3, so there are many more children per family,” said LeBlanc.”Those children are going to integrate, they’re going to get educated in our high schools and our universities—they’re New Brunswickers for all intents and purposes, and so they’re going to contribute to our province in important ways.”
“That’s an important opportunity we can’t lose sight of; this is bringing new energy, new people, new perspectives to our province, which is really important.”
Refugee and immigrant youth offer new opportunities for New Brunswick labour market
Farah Ali is a Grade 12 student at Fredericton High School (FHS) and a Syrian refugee who came to Canada on Jan. 16, 2016 from Jordan, where her family had lived for three years.
Unlike the Aldahers, who moved to Canada less than a month after the UN found out Mohamad fought during the Syrian civil war and was not safe in Lebanon, the Ali family had to wait four or five months and go through several rounds of interviews before they were allowed to come to Canada.
When Farah started at FHS she knew very little English, and was placed alongside dozens of other Syrian students in English language classes—slowly taking fewer until this year, where she has none.
Farah says it was difficult at first because the school was confusing to navigate and their lack of English language skills made it necessary for the new Syrian students to help one another—especially newer refugees.
“In the beginning it was hard, like it’s hard to make friends when you don’t speak their language; you can’t say anything more than hi—but, like, with time it gets better,” says Farah.
“Teachers were trying to do their best to help us, but you know it takes time to adapt with the language and new things, but they were trying to do their best and they did well.”
Farah is the oldest of four children and was accepted to UNB last November, where she plans to begin her Bachelor of Science this fall.
“Sciences and math are my favourite courses. I don’t really like history and memorizing things. I just like things I have to understand in the class. I like chemistry; it’s my favourite,” said Farah. She has dreams of becoming a doctor, but is waiting until she begins university so she can weigh her options.
Farah’s family also benefited from help within the community. Peter Gross and his wife Gisele were assigned to help the Ali family for three months after their arrival—but like the Aldahers’ welcome teams in Saint John, they formed a friendship that continues to this day.
“In the beginning, [Peter] was helping us to find things in Fredericton because when we came, we didn’t know like where [the stores are] and where we can find our groceries and other things; he was helping us, like with the medical things and […] with everything,” says Farah.
“Like he doesn’t have to stay with us until now, but he is like a friend now.”
Gross is currently facilitating a visit to UNB for Farah and her friends, who are nervous about embarking on this new journey—especially the potential barriers that limited English and larger class sizes might create for them.
“[The visit is] just to know UNB more and trying to figure out how we will start in September, because we don’t really know how the university works. It’s definitely different from the school and we want to see some people and ask questions we have,” said Farah.
Just getting to attend university is an exciting prospect for Farah, who went to school in Jordan but wouldn’t have been able to afford secondary education there, which she says was a discouraging reality.
“I’m studying all these years and getting good at it all, and then, like, not going to university… there is not a reward for my hard work; you feel like you are studying for nothing and now it’s completely different.”
Facilitating a place for newcomer youth in New Brunswick’s future
While Farah is finishing high school, the NBMC has been facilitating a work-placement program called Skills Launch to help newcomer youth who have been unable to obtain their high school diploma.
According to Leblanc, they were able to identify 317 youth that had “finished or aged out of high school, were unable to get a diploma and were in varied circumstances,” according to data from 2016.
“They have tremendous motivation, skills and potential; they just needed some focus, some support, some education.” Leblanc said. “Right now there are 27 youth across Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John that are in work placements, so they’re in the end of their one-year program.”
Leblanc says the program has been successful—and in Fredericton, they were able to put several young Syrian women in work placements despite initial reservations from their families.
The NBMC runs another program for high school newcomer youth called Imagine NB, which is engaging 27 leadership-oriented participants.
“We’re helping them to build their confidence with training and tools and networking with established business leaders and community leaders across New Brunswick, to help them see a future in New Brunswick—and moreover, to see a potential for playing a leadership role.” Leblanc said.
According to Leblanc, the idea came from a need for visible minorities in New Brunswick’s public sector, with the hope that by encouraging these students to reach their leadership potential, they will one day begin filling those gaps.
It is important that services such as this exist for integrating marginalized youth into the economy, said Leblanc, who cited a government policy study that discovered immigrant and Aboriginal youth face extensive barriers to success in the labour market. If these barriers are not alleviated, costs associated for Canadians would range from $72-236 billion per year.
Although some may express concern about the possibility of immigrants “taking our jobs” or abusing our social assistance services, Leblanc believes these are tired criticisms that come from a “perspective of scarcity”.
According to Leblanc, these perceptions come from the idea that there is a pie in New Brunswick that every new person who comes needs a slice of, forcing us to allocate precious and scarce resources.
“That paradigm is totally off when it comes to immigration.” Leblanc noted. “It’s really more about growing the pie, so we grow the pie there’s more pie for everybody.”
“There’s more people working, there’s more people who need to buy groceries, who are buying houses, who are buying clothes, who are getting haircuts, who are going to the doctor… You know, all of those things actually help us all directly and indirectly.”
The Aldahers say they see a place for them in New Brunswick and are looking forward to their children attending university and creating a different life than the one Mohamad and Latifa had, who both began working at age 11 to help support their large families.
“Yes! So excited for kids, I’m happy for kids.” Latifa said.
Halfway through the interview with her family, Saada Aldaher brought out a scrapbook made by their welcome teams commemorating their first year in Canada. The pages were full with pictures of the Aldahers trying Canadian customs and traditions—skating and swimming for the first time, celebrating Canada Day and Christmas, to name a few. But it also showed pictures from when the Aldahers reversed roles and shared their own culture with their new Canadian family, cooking them traditional Syrian food and celebrating Ramadan.
“It has been joyful.” says Chiasson. “We have gotten as much from them as we have given to them.”
Photos by Book Sadprasid