Ali Mansour poses in this undated handout photo. Ali Mansour spent his first two weeks in Canada watching through a window as winter give way to spring and squirrels ran across the lawn. As one of the last refugees to arrive in Canada before the border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it still felt like freedom. (Ali Mansour photo)

Ali Mansour poses in this undated handout photo. Ali Mansour spent his first two weeks in Canada watching through a window as winter give way to spring and squirrels ran across the lawn. As one of the last refugees to arrive in Canada before the border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it still felt like freedom. (Ali Mansour photo)

Uncertain future looms for refugees seeking a pandemic-era fresh start in Canada

Government, and private citizens, remain committed to refugee resettlement, even in a pandemic, said Kaylee Perez

Ali Mansour spent his first two weeks in Canada watching through a window as winter give way to spring and squirrels ran across the lawn.

As one of the last refugees to arrive in Canada before the border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it still felt like freedom.

“It felt like I was in a movie,” he said via an interpreter in an interview with The Canadian Press from his home in Waterloo, Ont.

For Mansour and thousands of refugees set to start new lives in Canada this year — and for the community groups providing them financial and social support — the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may reverberate for years.

Mansour, 31, fled Syria in 2017 to escape military service. Through a connection, he became acquainted with Aleya Hassan’s family in Canada.

Hassan arrived in 2011 as part of the skilled-worker program, and three years later became involved in sponsoring refugees. Her family agreed to sponsor Mansour as a refugee.

“I feel it is my duty to help, because l am lucky to be able to be in Canada and then, if I can change the life of even few people, that will be great,” she said.

Hassan said in her past sponsorship experiences, the work revolved around getting the newly arrived person or family to be self-sufficient as soon as possible.

That all went out the window with COVID-19.

After years of being a sponsor, Hassan had a schedule in place for new arrivals: when they’d get a bank account and a bus pass, be registered for classes and connect with community supports.

Mansour, however, arrived on March 16, on one of the last flights allowed into the country.

It was that same week the country largely shut down. Banks reduced their hours, community classes were cancelled or went online. Every resource Hassan was used to drawing upon vanished. A desire for Mansour to become self-sufficient was replaced by fear he’d get sick, and she took to driving him everywhere.

“It’s so strange when you don’t have a plan, and no one knows what the plan can be,” she said.

Within his first month, Mansour did find work: at the Canadian Shield Company making personal protective equipment, one of the only companies actively hiring in the pandemic’s early days.

“The company is based on serving society, doing something good,” he said. “That makes me happy.”

But he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to school to advance his engineering education. The tight-knit social networks he left behind in Syria are impossible to recreate, his English isn’t improving as fast as he needs and his life is just the commute to work and back, every day.

The enforced isolation of the pandemic is the biggest risk, said Yazan Alhajali, who has seen both sides of the refugee process.

He arrived as a refugee in 2017, and since then has become increasingly involved in supporting others, especially LGBTQ refugees from the Middle East.

Those who have arrived in the last year have none of the easy access to community that he did, he said.

“They’re locked at home, you can’t see anyone, you can’t learn English properly,” he said.

Refugees, already struggling through trauma, can’t access mental-health supports or even connect properly with primary care, he pointed out.

Altogether, he says, the supports have been curtailed so dramatically it raises questions about how long it will realistically take people to settle properly. He had every advantage, he said, but it still took him three years to feel at home.

One of the reasons Canada’s private sponsorship program is celebrated globally is the yearlong backing provided by sponsors. Studies have shown it is a jumping-off point that sees many privately sponsored refugees achieve better long-term outcomes than refugees supported solely by government.

For those whose private support ran out during the pandemic, that jumping-off point has become more like jumping into an abyss.

While Mansour found work fast, Laura Beth Bugg, a Toronto-based sponsor, said a family she sponsored has applied for 80 jobs, with no luck.

She’s continuing to give them money, even though the year is over, because the social supports that exist simply aren’t enough.

She and Alhajali are among dozens of people trying to convince the federal government to provide an additional six months of financial support to refugees in acknowledgment of the pandemic’s toll.

So far, they say, the government has shown little interest.

Canada had planned to settle 20,000 privately sponsored refugees this year but by the end of September only 3,500 had arrived. How long it will take for the rest remains unclear.

The government, and private citizens, remain committed to refugee resettlement, even in a pandemic, said Kaylee Perez, a migration and resettlement associate with the Mennonite Central Committee in Ontario, a major facilitator of private sponsorship.

The question is how to make it happen.

“There are always people who have the money, but not the time, and there are people who have the time, but not the money,” she said.

“How can we bring them together? That that’s part of what we’ll try to do in 2021.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and two new death in the region Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
79 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths reported in Interior Health

Both of Friday’s deaths were both recorded at long-term care homes

Veteran Henry Kriwokon has his photo taken by the Western as he celebrates his 99th birthday with friends at the Cellar in Downtown Penticton. (Brennan Phillips - Penticton Western News)
Turning 101, Penticton veteran looks back on life

Henry Kriwokon was one of the soldiers in the famous ‘Wait for me, Daddy’ photo

Stock photo from Unsplash.com
Study: Embrace national long-term care standards

Call to direct public funding only to public and non-profit long-term care providers

The BC CDC releases a map weekly that shows the geographic distribution of COVID in the province. (BC CDC photo)
Only one new case of COVID-19 in Golden region

The data shows new cases from Jan. 10 - 16

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

(Hal Brindley - Dreamstime)
Enderby farmers caught between coyotes and bylaw tickets

The Smith family is stuck in a Catch-22 between protecting their livestock and incurring noise complaints

A COVID-19 exposure has been confirmed at Black Mountain Elementary in Kelowna Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Google Image)
Another COVID-19 exposure confirmed at Kelowna school

Interior Health confirmed an exposure at Black Mountain Elementary School Saturday

Members of BCEHS Station 343 in Lake Country receive a donation of treats and wine from the community in December. (Contributed)
‘Unexpected and heartwarming’: Okanagan community supports paramedics

Cards, discounts, treats, more given to Lake Country paramedics in sign of support

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

The North Okanagan Naturalists' Club completed its annual swan and eagle counts Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. (Claude Rioux - NONC photo)
North Okanagan bird count shows decrease in swan and eagle numbers

Trumpeter swans were down 61 per cent from last year’s count; eagles down 14 per cent

Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis has served as the band’s chief since his first of six electoral wins in 1991. (File photo)
Okanagan Indian Band seeks nominations for upcoming election

A new OKIB chief and council will be elected March 30, 2021

Lake Country firefighters helped deliver a healthy newborn baby Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Pixabay)
Lake Country firefighters help deliver baby boy

Firefighters from the Winfield hall assisted with the birth of a healthy newborn Thursday morning

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

Most Read