20 for 20 — Welcome to Hamilton Following in the footsteps of Ryerson University, the 20 for 20 project seeks to assist Syrian refugees coming to Hamilton. The Silhouette sits down with Ahmed, a young man sponsored by the government

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Since the federal government’s initial announcement of refugee resettlement in Canada, many Syrian refugees have made it to Hamilton; however, the process has been neither short nor easy. Faced with language and cultural barriers, settlement is a process that’s dependent on the help and efforts of the larger community. McMaster students volunteering with Wesley Urban Ministry and professors helping to sponsor families through the 20 for 20 organizations are no strangers to the new members of the Hamilton community. For the rest of us, it is high time we welcome our new neighbours.

20 for 20

The 20 for 20 project was modelled after the approach that Ryerson University took in partnering with Lifeline Syria to sponsor 75 refugee families. At Ryerson, most families are sponsored by groups of five, each including one professor who often singlehandedly contributes $5,000 for their sponsorship group. Since the conception of the equivalent of this initiative in Hamilton, 20 for 20, the organization has undergone major changes.

One month ago, the focus shifted from asking large companies to sponsor a family to approaching smaller business or individuals in the community.  The organization also established new team of volunteers called the Resettlement Team. Volunteers under this title will work with the Wesley Urban Ministries to provide assistance to government-assisted refugees already making Hamilton their home.

Hayley Welham, the project manager of the initiative, recognizes this as a better use of volunteer effort.

“A lot of people at McMaster wanted to help immediately, kind of hit the ground running. So we thought the best way to encourage people to stay on for the long haul was to show them that they can make a difference right away.”

The Immigrants Working Center currently has 30 applications for private sponsors on file from Syrian families. Up until now, 22 of these families have been matched with sponsors. The 20 for 20 project is working towards finding sponsors for the remaining eight. Next on the list is a couple with a background in engineering and expecting a child.

When asked about the pressure of time, Welham attests that it has lessened. “There was more of a pressure when we started, because the government was welcoming refugees very quickly. Applications were being turned over every week at the beginning of January. Since we have hit the 25,000 mark, it has slowed down application processing … There is an urgency but not the same as it was before. It’s a long term project.”

“A lot of people at McMaster wanted to help immediately, kind of hit the ground running. So we thought the best way to encourage people to stay on for the long haul was to show them that they can make a difference right away.”

Keep on smiling

Ahmed, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee, arrived to Hamilton 40 days ago. One of many Syrian refugees supported by the government, he has travelled here with his sister and father. His life before stepping on Canadian soil has shaped who he is, and his perspective on his new life in Canada.

At his temporary residence in a Hamilton hotel, Ahmed talks to the 20 for 20 or Wesley Ministries volunteers. But at one point in his life, he was a volunteer himself. For two years, he volunteered in Jordan, providing psychosocial support for International Relief and Development and as a general volunteer for Oxfam. He believes organizations should coordinate volunteers here into groups first for health, second for sports, third for travel and fourth for psychosocial support. Ahmed wishes there was more support in the latter area.

“Me and all my family are happy,” Ahmed said of his arrival in Canada.

“I put a smiley face in Jordan all along the wall. If you came to my office, you would see a smiley face, smiley face … And my backpack, and my laptop, smiley face … Smiling is very important in life. What has happened, you should smile. Maybe you [will] feel better.”

New challenges

Starting anew in a strange country is not easy. Things that come naturally to those who have lived our whole lives in Canada are novel, exciting and also daunting to newcomers. Starting life in Canada is hard, because many things are polar opposites compared to refugees’ native countries, from language, to work, to transportation, to appointments. “Everything is different. I don’t speak my country bad or your country bad, no. Different. Like two brothers, they are not the same.”

Yet the reason refugees were drawn here is apparent. “I think Canada is better than any Arabic country. I am happy for us. Now I can start my life here. I have a plan in my mind that needs three years to be established … It’s so hard. I need support. Everyone needs support because we are strange in this country. For example, when paying for the bus, I don’t ask about transfer. Next time, someone tell me take transfer to come back free. We are strange here, we don’t know anything, but we learn.”

Ahmed attributes much of the ease in the process of acclimatization to McMaster students volunteering with 20 for 20 or Wesley Urban Ministry. By sharing their experience, volunteers can impart knowledge that is not always explicit. A bit of the unfamiliarity is attenuated by volunteers who can share their experiences, acting as liaisons between the refugees and the country they find themselves in. By breaking down the language barrier, volunteers who speak Arabic are further able to establish common ground, to which Ahmed can attest. “If [volunteers] know English and Arabic, I relax when I am in contact with him.”

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Basic needs

Starting from the moment that the first refugees landed in Canada, organizations have prioritized housing and health care. For Ahmed, the opportunity for better health care hits close to home. Currently 62 years old, Ahmed’s father suffers from multiple sclerosis. In Jordan or Syria, there were no treatments available to him. Ahmed believes that they have found the treatment here.

While these basic needs are critical pillars in refugee settlement, emphasis has yet to be placed on mobilizing refugees. The possibility of reaccreditation programs for those who come from an educated background is being considered. The focus is starting to shift to education and providing resources beyond basic needs.

We can get used to life here. Maybe in one year, any family can get used to life here and we may not have any problem. The system here is very good. We missed a system.”

Even through daily dialogue in their interactions with refugees, volunteers are able to offer some support in language development. For refugees who are active and seek to learn more about the new environment they find themselves in, they inevitably learn new things every day. Yet many want to go beyond learning how to navigate their surroundings.

Ahmed wishes to return to his studies. “I would love to work in business and management, but I don’t have my certification. I think it’s difficult.”

Ahmed’s love of studying is apparent. “I came with Hayley to [the interview] because I love studying, I love university. If you don’t study, it’s a hard life … In our country, at the doors of the school it reads ‘school is second mom.’ Everyone has two moms: your own, and school.”

Psychosocial support

Welham admits that it can be difficult to predict what will be help people trying to settle in. “I think the hardest thing for the volunteers so far has been identifying where the needs are, because I don’t know if any of the volunteers come from traumatic backgrounds, but I know I don’t. So going into a situation with hundreds of people who probably all have very traumatic histories, not being able to necessarily relate on that level makes it really difficult to identify what the needs are. We can identify the obvious ones, like helping the kids stay active and learn English, but something like psychosocial support isn’t necessarily at the forefront of our minds in terms of services we can provide. You can’t relate to something you haven’t experienced, so it’s hard.”

While they are not always needed, Ahmed stresses the importance of such supports.

“I think it is very important to care about psychosocial [aspects]. Many things happened to families in Syria that were bad. Maybe [they] lost a father, mother or brother. Maybe go to prison. No one knows what has happened, maybe many families don’t speak about it, but many families it hurts inside. They need support psychosocially.”

Ahmed believes the future lies in nurturing the younger generations. “I think kids are all things in life. When kids grow up, they make everything. If we care about kids, in the future, we can relax. If we don’t care about kids, we will have a bad future. Canada is good about this point. Canada teaches kids everything, school, sports, swimming, basketball, everything.”

When asked about the main differences between his home and Canada, Ahmed laughed. “Too much. So much,” he said. “We can get used to life here. Maybe in one year, any family can get used to life here and we may not have any problem. The system here is very good. We missed a system.”

The Syrian Refugee Project will host a Paint Nite fundraiser in May. Funds raised will be in support of a Syrian refugee couple in Iraq with a baby on the way. They are both engineers.

You can learn more about 20 for 20 and how to get involved by visiting their website or Facebook.

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