No Easy Path to Canadian Citizenship For Some Syrian Refugees


Celebration of Canadian national identity / “Canadiana” by Ruth Hartnup is licensed under CC by 2.0


Canada has received international attention for an innovative program that has brought 56,800 Syrian refugees into the country by pairing one refugee family with five volunteer Canadian sponsors for a year. Now, in early 2019, close to 25,000 of those refugees are eligible to apply for citizenship. For those refugees looking to become Canadians, however, more obstacles lie ahead.

“I would say around 90 percent of the refugee families I’ve been in contact with are planning to apply for citizenship,” said Mira Salti, one of the founders of Refugee Support Network, a non-profit organization based in Toronto that connects bilingual volunteers with newly arriving refugee families in Ontario.

Salti has been closely involved with many families who came to Toronto through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, focusing most of her personal attention on the refugees’ health needs and improving communication between them and their sponsors, many of whom don’t speak Arabic.

“There’s a lot of effort on the part of these families to blend into society,” Salti said, explaining why she thought many refugees were looking to attain citizenship status.

But the process to apply for citizenship has its roadblocks. In order to qualify, most individuals (those between 18-54 years of age) must pass a language test, and all applicants must pay a processing fee of $630 Canadian dollars for adults and $100 for children, an amount that is likely burdensome for those who are still adjusting to their new lives in Canada as well as often struggling to find steady work.

A report by Immigrant Services Society of B.C. found that 56 percent of refugee families were dependent on food banks in the province at least once a week in 2018, though the dependency has dropped by 10 percent from the previous year, which showed that 66 percent of refugee families were dependent on food banks weekly. The report also suggests that the decline in reliance when paired with the growing employment rate among the Syrian refugees suggests that “while employment among Syrians is increasing, incomes may be insufficient to meet basic needs.”

Many Syrian refugee families are larger than what is typical in Canada, making the application processing fees burdensome and accommodations sometimes difficult especially in urban areas like Toronto, where housing is expensive and often not available to larger families. Many government-assisted refugees, around 1,300 families, according to a 2017 report, came in families of eight or more, and though privately sponsored families were usually smaller in size, usually five or fewer members per family, they often grew larger after their arrival.

“The families were having a lot of children,” Salti said. She explained that though the refugee families had Canadian sponsors who were incredibly generous with their resources and time even as Syrian families were sometimes growing in size, there was a large concern about the financial burdens that some of the refugees may have after their year of sponsorship came to an end.

Aside from financial constraints, the biggest obstacle for refugees seeking citizenship status, according to immigration lawyers, is likely the language requirement, used to assess applicants’ proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension of English or French.

“Some don’t have problem with the language test,” said Joel Sandaluk, a Toronto immigration lawyer who explained that some families were selected for the program because they speak English or French to begin with. “In a lot of cases, though, there is language barrier and I would imagine that would be very difficult.”

Refugees in Canada automatically have permanent residency status upon their arrival, unlike in the United States where they can only attain permanent residency if they choose to apply and are accepted for it one year after they arrive.

Typically, the biggest barrier to obtaining citizenship for those who have this status in Canada, according to legal experts, would be the requirement of spending three out of five years in the country prior to the application. But, that often isn’t a problem for those who came through private sponsorship.

“Generally speaking, someone who is a refugee won’t be travelling much internationally,” said Sandaluk. “And usually the only other concern would be if you were to get into any problem with the law: the time spent on probation or in sentence doesn’t count toward the three years spent in country. For refugees there are very low instances of criminality, though, so that isn’t much of an issue.”

When the war broke out in his country on March 15, 2011, Abdou Almousali was 19 years old. Soon afterward, he became one of the millions of displaced Syrian refugees in the world. Abdou spent two years in a refugee camp in Jordan before he came to Canada in September 2014 under the private sponsorship program.

Almousali started his application for citizenship almost immediately after spending three years in Canada, and two months ago, he finally received it.

“For someone like me, who didn’t have a passport and couldn’t travel anywhere, citizenship is very important,” Almousali said. “When I got my citizenship, I felt more freedom and it encouraged me to work more, to have something better.”

“It’s a dream actually,” he continued. “Even now when I’m talking right now, I’m still not believing that I do have this citizenship.”

For Almousali, citizenship and a Canadian passport means that he can travel freely, but it also means something more profound.

“So now I have — what’s it called — proof.” Almousali said. “Proof that you are a human.”

Almousali said that during his two years in Jordan, he didn’t feel that way because he couldn’t work — or, as a matter of fact, really do anything — in the camp.

“I wanted to do so many things but the war stopped all of that. They close the camp in on you and you can’t do anything,” Almousali said. “You just have to stand to get your bread. I felt this was not my life, not how I planned my life. I needed something to do. I needed to have a life.”

Children who came through the program seem to have adjusted very quickly to the new environment and language and aren’t required to take a language test unless they turn 18 at the time of the application. But for adults, learning an unfamiliar language on top of adjusting to a wholly new environment is often not easy.

When Almousali first came to Canada almost five years ago, he spoke little to no English. He tried to improve his language skills by watching videos online, but his job — working in a factory — made it difficult for him to practice with anyone around him.

“I thought to myself, if I work at that factory, I will not be able to learn English for the rest of my life,” Almousali said. So he began a new job at a restaurant, which gave him more opportunities to communicate with people, and now he works as a door-to-door representative for Bell, a Canadian telecommunications company.

Almousali was a young single man when he arrived to Canada and he had relatives already here who could help him adjust to his new life. But families who come alone without connections or a strong support system often have more difficulty adapting to their new lives. New mothers, in particular, who have to shoulder the difficulties of childbirth in an unfamiliar country on top of everything else, can find the transition strenuous.

A 2017 report showed that Syrian refugees mothers in Canada were multiple times more likely to develop postpartum depression than their Canadian counterparts, noting both difficulties faced before resettlement as well as obstacles in Canada to be contributing factors. “Refugee women usually face many obstacles when accessing health services,” the report read, “including language and cultural barriers, as well as unique help-seeking behaviors that are influenced by various cultural and practical factors.”

Sita, who has focused much of her efforts on helping families gain access to health services, has worked closely with both pregnant women and mothers as they seek access to treatment and procedures.

“The mother of the family I’m closest to was pregnant and had to undergo induced pregnancy,” Sita said. “But we faced issues at the hospital. She’s Muslim and was wearing a headscarf and was only really comfortable having female doctors present for the procedure, so we put in a request a while earlier, but when we arrived at the hospital for the birth, things were different.”

“They said to her, ‘If you don’t want a male doctor, you’re not going to get an epidural cause there aren’t any female nurses on the floor right now,” Sita explained. The situation was resolved in the end, when the husband convinced his wife that religion didn’t come before health, but the event bothered Sita. She had also previously seen the family harassed by their neighbors, who, unhappy with the fact that refugees had moved into their building, consistently threw beer bottles into the family’s balcony. The family decided to quietly move into a different building and had refused to report the incident to police, which would have created a bigger issue of the harassment.

Though it is only since 2015 that Canada’s private sponsorship program has gained international attention, after the federal government pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the year’s end, private groups of Canadians have been sponsoring refugees since 1978. Most reports say that Syrian refugees who have come to Canada through the private sponsorship program are very happy, and though Sita agrees based on her experience, she also notes that Canada is still a very cold country that many refugees are still not used to yet.

“A lot of them actually want to go back after the conflict in Syria,” said Sita, “to go back to this country that was destroyed in order to rebuild it.”

Others, however, like Almousali, can’t imagine returning.

“Now I feel that Canada is my second home,” Almousali said. “Syria — the place I was born in and raised in — has so many memories and I can’t release all that from my life, but to live there with that government… there’s no way to go back. That’s the government that killed my friends.”

“I can’t live with those people anymore.”

YEJI LEE is a Korean Canadian who’s lived back and forth between the two countries her entire life. Yeji has worked at publications based in Paris, Seoul, and Washington D.C. and specializes in international news with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. Twitter: @jesse_yeji

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