Toronto, Canada – The first week of school can be nerve-racking for any child, but for Syrian refugees settling into a new country after escaping war, that stress can be drastically multiplied.
Although nervous, and at times hiding behind her mother, five-year-old Cemile Muhammed and her brothers, Yusif and Gazi, say they are happy to be starting kindergarten and grade one at Willow Park Junior Public school in Toronto.
After pointing out bears in a storybook to her little brother in their classroom, Cemile shyly opens up about her experience at school so far.
“I like my teacher and toys and I have fun with the other kids,” she says in Arabic.
Her father Muhammed Muhammed, who worked at a shop in Syria before fleeing with his family, says he is grateful to Canada for taking them in.
“I enjoy the chance and happy life Canada can offer me and my kids,” he says, speaking through a translator. But he adds that he knows the future will be a struggle at first.
“It’s not just hard for the kids to adapt, it’s been difficult for my wife and I to adapt as well,” he says. He has yet to find a job, taking English lessons first.
The Muhammed family fled from Aleppo – a city that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the war – three years ago and stayed in Gaziantep on the Turkish-Syrian border before moving to Canada in February 2015.
In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to take in 20,000 refugees. That number, though, has grown to nearly 30,000 so far. About half of those are sponsored by the government, including the Muhammed family.
Speaking by phone from Ottawa, the capital, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration John McCallum says Canada’s will to help comes from a history, and acceptance, of multiculturalism.
I'm probably the only minister of immigration in the world who can't produce refugees quickly enough for the demand of private sponsors
“We have to look at this in two ways: In the short term this is a humanitarian gesture. Long term, we’re developing strong Canadians,” he says.
“There are so many people willing to help in Canada. I’m probably the only minister of immigration in the world who can’t produce refugees quickly enough for the demand of private sponsors.”
Canadian citizens and permanent residents can sponsor refugees and help them resettle in Canada under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme.
Sam Jisri, the managing director of SAV Syria, an NGO in Toronto, has been on the frontlines of getting privately sponsored refugees set up in their new homes.
His organisation coordinates between volunteers, NGOS, private sponsors and the government in helping to integrate and settle Syrians coming to the province of Ontario, providing everything from food, furniture, translation, transportation and other socioeconomic assistance.
He explains how important it is to introduce Syrian newcomers to Canadian culture as a way to make them feel comfortable and welcome – from taking them to hockey games to summer barbeques.
“Coming from the life they escaped from, it is so important to make them feel at ease and understand how life is in Canada,” Jisri says.
Seventy-five percent of Syrian refugees to Canada are under the age of 18. Zeina Adra, a school settlement worker for the Peel District School Board, works directly with Syrian refugee students, many of whom have come from rural areas and refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.
“Many kids have been out of school for a long time,” says Adra. “We’re trying to help close that gap by ensuring students enter the grade level according to their age so that they’re not set back from the time they’ve missed in school.”
She explains how the school board tries to offer more than just education as pupils enter school this year. “A lot of students are dealing with mental issues from post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
After working closely with Syrian families for months, Adra was eager to offer support to parents as well.
“Parents are too dealing with a lot of issues that come with adapting to a new life here,” she says. “It’s important for us to help parents on all of these levels as well in order for their kids to do well in school. They need to be strong for them.”
After a year, government assistance ends for state-sponsored refugees and, if those looking for work have not yet found jobs, they will have to rely on social assistance. That is something Jisri hopes won’t happen.
“I tell them I will not tolerate them on social assistance unless they really need to. Syrians are smart and they will do their part in this country.”
Despite the challenges of integration and education, Jisri is hopeful.
“That young generation is an investment and will represent a strong future for Canada.”