Thunder Bay welcomes Syrian families

Thunder Bay expects to receive 100 Syrian refugees before the end of 2016

By Ashley Aalto, Staff Writer

It is no secret that Syria is in a state of crisis. Because of the civil war, more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees and 6 million have been displaced within Syria. The majority of victims affected by the conflict are children, especially with the recent attacks on the last children’s hospital in the rebel-held Aleppo. Winter is dawning upon Syria, and with no way to receive resources and little being left, many are afraid their families will not last until spring. So with this crisis, many are left asking what is not only Canada, but Thunder Bay doing to help?

With the death toll being over 100,000 and the number of refugees growing exponentially, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that he would welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in his electoral campaign. This goal has been met and surpassed, with almost 34,700 Syrian refugees arriving in Canada since November 4th, 2015 and resettling all across Canada. This includes Thunder Bay, which has welcomed approximately 60 refugees since the beginning of September, with plans to welcome at least 100 refugees by the end of 2016. This initiative by the Liberal government has provided hope for a new and safe life for Syrian families.

Resettling to a new country and culture can be quite a shock, and there can be major struggles for these families as they adjust to life in Canada. The Thunder Bay Multicultural Association recognizes the struggles that refugees may experience when first moving to Canada, and does their best to help. The organization has many programs in place to help Syrian refugees become accustomed to the Canadian culture and lifestyle, and to help them get back on their feet.

Maha Halabecki, the Resettlement Assistant at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association says that one of the biggest struggles for Syrian refugees settling in Thunder Bay is finding housing. She tells The Argus, “One of the main struggles for the Syrian refugees resettling here is finding a new home. A lot of landlords want a credit check, but the refugees do not have credit in Canada, and because of this, a lot of them get refused. The refugees stay in a hotel until they can find housing. They are only supposed to stay for 21 days, but many have to stay for a month and a half or more because they cannot find housing.”

In addition, one of the most prominent difficulties that Syrian refugees face is the language barrier.  Maha says, “They want to go out, communicate, and be involved with the community, but the language barrier hinders them. To do these things, many need Arabic translators with them.” The language barrier takes away the refugees ability to be independent, thus making it more difficult for them to adjust. To help new come Syrians with this struggle, the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association has English as a Second Language courses that refugees must participate in when they come to Canada. This helps refugees enter Canadian culture more smoothly, and grants them freedom.

Budgeting can also be a struggle Syrian refugees face. Maha tells The Argus that because the economies are different and things are much cheaper in Syria, it can be hard for Syrian families to properly budget for the things they need. “The government is supporting them and providing them with sufficient funds, but they have to be really careful about budgeting. It takes time for them to figure out how much their expenses are every month, but we help them by making break downs of how much they have to spend and what they need, as well as and making distinctions between needs and wants,” Maha explains.

The new climate can also be very frightening for the refugees arriving in Thunder Bay, as most of them have not experienced snow or temperature below minus ten degrees Celsius. Maha says, “It can be a shock to them. We try to make sure they are dressed well with proper foot wear so they can survive their first winter successfully.”

Many refugees have also experienced traumas, which can result in mental health complications. These can include anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that causes flashbacks of past traumatic events in its victims. In addition to these issues, having to move to a new environment where one may not understand the language and customs can be quite the stressful experience, thus exacerbating these conditions. Cathy Woodbeck, the Executive Director at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association tells The Argus of the measures in place to help refugees struggling with mental illness. “We have a couple of partnerships with counselling agencies within the city, and we have a lot of resources with the Canadian Mental Health Association. The counselling centres in Thunder Bay are fabulous, they provide refugees with the help they need.”

Though there are many struggles, the outcomes of the resettlement process have so far been positive and rewarding. “It has been busy, but really exciting these past couple of months,” says Maha. “It’s very nice to see the transition. When they first come, they are scared, hesitant, and are uncertain of what is coming next. Once they move into their house and start school, subconsciously they are starting to adapt. They might not see it, but we do. It gives us the motivation to move on and help them in any way we can. Once they join the community and meet the other families that have been here a little longer, it gives them comfort and hope to move on. It is a lot of work, but it is so fulfilling.”

Maha encourages the Thunder Bay community to get involved in the refugee resettlement process. Community members can donate items such as used furniture, appliances, or money to the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association. Maha also encourages Arabic speaking people to volunteer with the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association as translators for the newly settled refugees or as tutors for students. Youth in the community can also get involved by becoming a peer mentor for Syrian refugee youth by helping them to get involved in the Thunder Bay community and getting accustomed to life in Canada.


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