Nabel Alali is a Syrian refugee. He came to Canada in January of this year
2016 was the year my life changed forever: After five years of fleeing war, my family and I arrived in Canada.
Before the war, I had many friends and I owned a family bookstore, which my father had passed on to me. The life we lived – my wife, three children and me – was simple, and we were happy.
I fled with my family to Jordan shortly after the war began in March, 2011. There, we were registered with the United Nations as refugees. After three years in Jordan, I received a message saying that, under the government-assisted refugee program, I had been selected to go to Canada. When I saw this message, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Arriving on Jan. 13, 2016 – with my wife and three kids on a chartered plane of Syrian refugees – my journey had just begun. I knew a little about Canada and its people, but I really didn’t know anything about Canadian life.
On the plane, my daughter asked me, “Will we see my grandparents there? What about my uncles, my aunts? Are we going to find friends here?” When we landed, I was in shock. Looking out the window, it was all white. In Syria, it is very rare for us to see snow and on the rare occasions there is snow, it only lasts for a few hours. But what I saw the first time I saw Canada was all snow: all white, everywhere. I’m still getting used to this – and bracing for our second winter.
At the airport, we received a warm welcome from the Canadian immigration staff who gave us an orientation and provided us with winter clothing. They took us to a nearby hotel where we stayed for one night, and the next morning we were transported to another hotel in Scarborough, where we lived for three long months.
Costi, a government-funded organization, was hosting us at the hotel. They provided us with all our needs, while we waited for an appointment with a housing counsellor to find homes in Toronto.
Every day, I was afraid. I wondered if I was in the right city for my family. I know now that it was – but living in the hotel for three months was difficult: Was there another place I could go which would offer us better opportunities? Would this city be everything we had hoped for, once I actually got the chance to see it?
Our movement was very limited, as we knew nothing about the transportation system and didn’t have many other ways to get around. We didn’t experience life outside the hotel. We grew restless, and everything was at a standstill.
It felt like the organization that was responsible for us wasn’t working fast enough to help us settle.
Three months later, after finally getting the chance to meet with a housing counsellor, I was able to find an apartment in East York where my family and I settled.
I didn’t know anything about the supermarkets or where to buy food. I didn’t know where to find a family doctor or dentist. I was scared: I didn’t know who to ask for help, what to ask or even how to ask. But as time went on, I met many Canadians, day by day, who were willing to help, and willing to be my friend.
Now, my biggest concern is my job: I worked as an English language teacher in Syria, and I hoped to continue my career here. But becoming a teacher in Canada will be very difficult – I will need to go back to school, which will cost me a lot of time and money. I am now confused as to what I should do; should I find any job to make ends meet, or try to continue my career as a teacher?
On a daily basis, I volunteer to help other refugees, whose English isn’t as strong as mine, assisting with interpretation during appointments and translating documents to help them understand what is being asked of them – everything from the general mail, to household bills and government documents.
As we are about to enter 2017, I must say I am very thankful for all the support I received from the government and the Canadian people. I have experienced nothing but kindness and understanding from every corner of Canadian society, and there has not been a moment where I felt like a refugee or that this wasn’t my country.
My hope for the new year is that I can become more active in Canadian society and return the kindness that I was shown when I arrived.