PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY — The day Abdel Malek Al-Jasem arrived in Canada was bittersweet. He was hopeful that the country would provide a new life for him; for his wife, Sawsen; and for their 11 children, far from their home in war-torn Syria.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about his brothers.
In October 2015, Al-Jasem had left them behind in Lebanon, which was serving as a temporary home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by the civil war. He’d found a Canadian sponsor — a private non-profit group in Prince Edward County called PEC Syria. But he talked to his brothers every day and reassured them that the group would be submitting applications for them as well.
That was three years ago.
“Not anybody come. Not one brother,” says Al-Jasem, who spoke barely a word of English when he first arrived. “I saw many people from Syria in Lebanon come to Canada. Easy. Very easy for me. But my three brothers did not come to Canada.”
When Al-Jasem’s brothers ask him why it’s taking so long, he tells them he doesn’t know. “The government in Canada, very difficult. Many —” he uses an Arabic word and asks his 20-year-old son, Ramez, to translate. “Decisions. Many decisions.”
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The Al-Jasem family was part of the wave of Syrian refugees that came to Canada in late 2015 and early 2016. (In those first 14 months, Canada resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees. The government has resettled another 20,000 in the two years since.)
Canada’s immigration system allows for private sponsorship, and the Syrian refugee crisis inspired thousands of Canadians to support resettlement. But sponsorship groups are becoming increasingly frustrated by delays and changes to the application process that, they say, are preventing families in Prince Edward County, and elsewhere, from being reunited with their relatives. And they believe the federal government is to blame.
For three years, PEC Syria, founded in 2015, has been trying to bring Al-Jasem’s brothers to Canada. Carlyn Moulton, chair of the organization, estimates that it’s attempted to navigate the process four times since December 2015. “About eight weeks of my life has been spent filling in application forms,” she says. The application process is intensive: sponsor groups must prepare both settlement plans outlining how they will support the refugees and financial profiles of each individual co-sponsor that prove their capacity to support them; the refugees themselves must submit an application for permanent residence that includes recent photos of every family member.
But there have been unexpected obstacles. “After all this great hullabaloo, suddenly, there was a change of heart, and you had to have these applications submitted in 48 hours or they wouldn't be considered,” she says. “Everybody stayed up all night and twisted themselves in pretzels to get them in.”
The group sent in four applications that round, but only one of them found its way into the queue. Moulton says that the government always seemed to have new requests or to identify errors in the paperwork. In late 2016, it changed the rules governing how community sponsors could apply. Then, in early 2017, it changed the forms. The sponsors grew frustrated, and Al-Jasem’s relatives in Lebanon grew increasingly worried that they would not be able to join the rest of the family.
John Sewell, a coordinator for the non-profit group Canada 4 Refugees (and a former mayor of Toronto) believes the government is in a “quandary” when it comes to deciding who gets into the country and who doesn’t.
“There are a lot of refugees who want to come to Canada, not just from Syria but other places as well. I think there was some anger that Syrians managed to get here first and others didn’t,” says Sewell. “That’s a big problem for the government.” Sewell also says that he believes Canada no longer has the resources in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon to keep applications moving in a timely manner.
Rémi Larivière, a spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, told TVO.org via email that a “variety of factors” can affect the amount of time it takes to process applications, “including the volume of applications, the security situation in the region, logistical challenges outside of [the ministry’s] control, and how quickly requirements such as security screening and medical examinations can be completed.”
Both Moulton and Sewell want to see the government dedicate more resources to the processing of applications.
“This pressure of migration — there are 69 million people, roughly, in the world today who are displaced because of war or famine,” says Moulton, “We’ve got to step up to that responsibility or consign them to die.”
She would also like to see the process made easier for private and community sponsors, with whom, she adds, refugees have a higher rate of integration success. PEC Syria has enlisted the help of the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre to sponsor as many of Al-Jasem’s brothers as its yet-to-be-determined quota for 2019 will allow.
Moulton says what’s particularly frustrating for PEC Syria is that everything is in place on its end — it already has “money in the bank” to sponsor more families.
“We have paid rent and furnished houses for these families. So much time has passed that, finally, in disgust and despair, we decided to give away two houses’ worth of furniture and clothing that we had prepared,” says Moulton. “For three years, we have been trying to sponsor them, but the government policy keeps changing to preclude them from coming.”
The government states that the enthusiasm with which private sponsors have welcomed and supported Syrian refugees has actually contributed to the bottleneck. The immigration ministry spokesperson explained that the interest shown by Canadians is a sign of the resettlement program’s success but that it has resulted in a “large and growing inventory” of applications.
Ramez Al-Jasem, Abdel Malik’s second-eldest son, who is studying at Loyalist College, in Belleville, to become a police officer, says he worries about his relatives in Lebanon. His cousins, ranging in age from six to 12, are unable to go to school. Most Syrians in Lebanon face discrimination and restrictions on where they can live, work, and travel, he says — for example, they’re not permitted to leave the house after 7 p.m.
But Ramez still hopes that his extended family will arrive in Canada someday soon. He tells his uncles to keep their hopes up, too.
“I tell my uncles it’s freedom. You can go anytime, at nighttime, right? You can do any job you want. There’s peace and everything. That’s what I tell them.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
Watch TVO’s documentary Sponsorland about the Al-Jasem family’s arrival in Canada, and how it adapted to life in Prince Edward County.