In Montreal, Syrian refugees suffer heartbreak for those left behind

In Montreal, Syrian refugees suffer heartbreak for those left behind


Less than a year after arriving in Montreal, Avo Kazanjian, 18, has finished his French classes, is studying architecture at Vanier College and even hosts a radio show every Monday.

Believe it or not, he’s also in training to work at Tim Horton’s.

“Don’t call me a refugee,” insists Kazanjian, breathlessly, between his various appointments. “I’m not living in the conditions of a refugee. I’m a future Canadian.”

There’s just one thing missing from the picture — his dad.

While Kazanjian arrived with his sisters and mother from Beirut last year, on one of the first flights of Syrian refugees to touch down in Canada in December 2015, his father returned to Aleppo to care for Kazanjian’s grandmother, who was struck with cancer.

Now he can only sit and wait for his father to join the rest of the family, as he watches footage of his hometown disintegrating under daily bombardment.

“My father says it’s not dangerous — he doesn’t want us to be scared,” Kazanjian says. “But I watch the news.”

MONTREAL, QUE.: DECEMBER 6, 2016 -- Syrian refugee Avo Kazanjian looks at his notes before night class at Vanier College in the St-Laurent borough of Montreal Tuesday December 6, 2016. (John Mahoney / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 57728 - 0546
Avo Kazanjian looks at his notes before night class at Vanier College. JOHN MAHONEY / MONTREAL GAZETTE

It’s a predicament common to many Syrian newcomers.

On the one hand, they are eternally grateful for their good fortune in a new country, settling into new homes, schools and jobs. On the other, they feel anxious, guilty and heartbroken for those they left behind.

As the process for sponsoring others from Syria or elsewhere returns to its normal, slower pace, Kazanjian and others may be heartbroken for a long time to come.

Waiting in the Middle East

While the Trudeau government ultimately surpassed its goal of welcoming 25,000 refugees — 35,745 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015 — family members and would-be sponsors are finding the process a whole lot slower leading into 2017.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), all those whose applications were submitted before March 31, 2016 should be finalized by early 2017.

As of Nov. 27, there were 19,576 applications of Syrian refugees being processed, including 4,264 files that have been finalized.

But the families behind the files are still waiting, many of them in precarious conditions in the Middle East.

The IRCC could not say what is causing the further delay in getting them here, or how long it would be before Canada would welcome the other 15,000 Syrians.

Paul Clarke, the executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, which has been sponsoring refugees from around the world for years, says would-be sponsors have to realize that last year’s operation was an anomaly.

While he’s seen desperate Eritreans or Iraqis wait three to six years before finally getting to Montreal after being sponsored, last year’s “lucky cohort” of Syrians saw that delay reduced to as few as 100 days.

“The Liberals came in and shook the system for the Syrians to come very quickly, which was great for all those who were highly motivated and ready to take care of them now,” Clarke said. “But the reality is the system is not like that. And it’s hard to motivate people to sponsor strangers when they take five years to arrive.”

That said, the demand, especially to sponsor family members, is still strong, Clarke said. Action Réfugiés has a waiting list of 900 people who want to sponsor family members somewhere in the world. Mosaic, a similar organization in Vancouver that tries to match Syrian refugees in Canada with sponsors who can sponsor their family members, has a family reunification list of 700 people — but only 170 sponsor groups.

“Every day we get calls and emails from people in desperate situations and we have to say you’re number 901 on the list, and then it’s a multi-year wait before we see their feet on the ground in Canada,” Clarke said.

Quebec is forecasting receiving up to 6,000 refugees in 2017. That will include 4,000 privately sponsored refugees from around the world, Clarke said, and there will be another 4,000 in 2018. But it already has about 10,000 applications in the pipeline. Any new applications would be finalized in 2019, at the earliest.

“We would like to see (the provincial and federal) governments working with groups like us to make the system fair and have people come in a reasonable time,” Clarke said. “Let’s try to define that.”

Family reunification No. 1 concern

In the meantime, the waiting game is having an effect on those already here.

At a conference in Montreal in November, while discussing “Month 13” issues for refugees — after one year, sponsors are no longer responsible for refugees’ expenses and guidance — the Canadian Council for Refugees identified family reunification as the top concern for refugees.

On Tuesday, a report from the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, led by Sen. Jim Munson and based on its fact-finding mission to Montreal and Toronto last spring, identified several areas in which settlement services could be improved, including language instruction, mental health services and assistance finding work.

Only 12 per cent of government-assisted refugees who arrived in the last year have found jobs, while about half of privately-sponsored refugees are working, the senate committee learned.

But it also mentioned family reunification as an area where the federal government “can make an immediate and long-lasting impact both in the resettlement process and integration.”

“As noted by witnesses,” reads the report, “family reunification is good for the integration of those that are already here, but also for new arrivals.”

Once the family is together, the first to arrive can focus on other things — jobs, school, etc — while they help the newcomers integrate themselves.

Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum announced Wednesday he would cut the average processing time for family unification applications in half — from two years to one. But it is not clear if this would apply to Syrian refugees applying to bring other family members over.

In the meantime, Kazanjian has applied to bring his father here. A civil engineer who built factories before the war in Syria, his father has not worked in six years and is now living with his mother in her apartment in Aleppo.

They communicate between Montreal and Aleppo daily by WhatsApp, Skype or Facebook. Kazanjian’s father’s file is still open from when he was supposed to come to Canada with the rest of the family, Kazanjian says, so maybe it won’t take too long.

“I have so much to think about — my exams next week, finding work, etc. But I can’t not think about them in Aleppo, and there’s nothing I can do to hurry up the process. We just have to wait.”