As a Syrian refugee, I lived in a hotel shelter for my first few months in Toronto. Now I work there

As a Syrian refugee, I lived in a hotel shelter for my first few months in Toronto. Now I work there

In 2016, when Khaled Al Mouktaran and his family came to Toronto as Syrian refugees, they lived in a hotel while they got settled. Years later, when the pandemic hit, Al Mouktaran got the opportunity to work in the same hotel where he spent his first few months in Canada. Here, he describes what it was like.

As told to Alison Motluk

“I was a teenager when my family came to Toronto five years ago. We were Syrian refugees, arriving through Lebanon, and when we got here, the government put us up in a big hotel in the northwest corner of the city. There are four kids in my family—two boys, two girls—and there wasn’t a lot for us to do. Every day, to pass the time, we’d just pick up the room phone and call reception. There was a nice guy, Claudio, who worked at the front desk. We would ramble on in Arabic while he tried hard to figure out what we wanted. We just wanted to talk to someone. But we really tried his patience.

“That wasn’t the only trouble we caused. Once, someone donated one of those electric kiddy cars, and we started zipping through the hotel hallways. Another time, right after a newcomer class about Canada, we decided to call 911. We’d learned in the class that you should do that if you ever felt unsafe, and we wanted to try it out. Two minutes later, there were police officers, firefighters, an ambulance. We were shaking, but no one ever found out it was us.

“We ate all our meals down in the hotel restaurant, with the 350 or so other Syrian refugees in the building. Even though there was all kinds of food, all I ever ate was pizza and fries. We didn’t know Canadian food. We felt nervous a lot of the time.

“My family lived in that hotel for our first two months in Canada. It was a happy time. We were one of the last two families to leave the building, so by the end we’d really gotten to know the serving staff in the kitchen, the chefs, the housekeepers. I don’t even know how we communicated, but they felt like close friends. The day we left, I ran to Claudio and hugged him and cried. I told him I’d go back and see him, but I never did.

“We moved to a two-bedroom apartment across town in Thorncliffe Park and settled in. My mom and dad started English classes, my little brother and sister went to school and started talking like locals, and my sister and I graduated from high school. In the summers, I got jobs with the city, first as a biking instructor, then as a rink guard and camp counsellor.

“Last spring, as the pandemic ramped up, the city was desperate for additional workers. I got a notification, asking if I wanted a job helping out a few days a week in a hospital or a long-term care facility or a homeless shelter. I could have chosen any of those, but I chose shelters. As a refugee, I knew what it was like to live in one. I knew what it was like to leave my home and start a new life. I thought I might be able to relate to the clients.

“During the pandemic, the city converted some hotels into shelters, and in April 2020, I started working at one in the northeast corner of the city. I was doing night shifts, so I mostly sat at a desk and handled inquiries or complaints and went on patrol every 15 minutes or so to make sure everyone was safe. That job ended in November.

“Then, in January this year, I heard that the hotel where I’d lived when I first came to Canada had been turned into a homeless shelter too. And even though it’s really far away from our apartment in Thorncliffe, I put in a request to work there.

“The hotel has two halves connected by a hallway. On one side, it’s a shelter run by COSTI, the non-profit immigrant aid organization that had managed my family’s case, and on the other, the city-run shelter, where I would work. The first thing I did was poke my head in on the COSTI side—and I saw Claudio sitting there at the front desk!

“I really wanted to talk to him, to hear how he was doing. As I walked toward him, he said, ‘Oh, city clients are on the other side.’ I pulled my mask down for a second so he could see my face. He stared at me. ‘Are you that Syrian kid who used to annoy me?’

“Five years had passed, and yet he still remembered that my dad was the guy with the beard who liked to talk and that my mom wore the niqab. That my sister had broken her arm riding a bike in front of the hotel. He still had our pictures on his phone.

“He took me inside and showed me around. He brought me to Lana, who was the program supervisor while I was there. I took videos and sent them to my sister. ‘Remember eating fries in here?’ I wrote. She begged me to send more.

“Most days, I take my breaks in the old activity room, where my little brother and sister used to play and colour. Every time I pass by the window of my old hotel room, I think, That was my window, and I remember sitting there, watching my new country from the other side, a little afraid and a little hopeful. Claudio told me that a lot of Syrian refugees still stop by to see the building. They’re really connected to it. I mean, it was our first home.

“And now I’m the one helping. Sometimes clients need a TTC token to go to an appointment or help applying for a health card or a referral to another service. Because of Covid, they can’t eat in the restaurant, so we deliver meals to their rooms—which is good because it’s a way for us to make sure they’re doing okay. They can’t have roommates, so it’s very isolating for them. They’re alone with the TV all day long.

“Many of the clients are older. They all have stories. They all have families. One guy told me about his two kids who were university graduates. They’re not in touch anymore, but he thinks about them. Toronto is such a polite city, but if you say ‘homeless,’ everyone thinks the worst. Nobody thinks that they might have children or a profession. It’s just like it was for us. My dad was an electrical engineer in Syria. But where were his degrees when he was in the shelter system? He was just a refugee.

“Sometimes clients come down to my desk and they’re pretty agitated. They hate the food or there’s some problem with their room or one of us employees did something wrong. They’re screaming and waving their arms. But usually all it takes is a conversation and they start to feel a bit better. I try to get them to talk about something they’re interested in—video games or cars. One guy was a fisherman. He gave me advice on catching fish. I told him I kept losing my hooks whenever I tried to fish. He actually pulled a thread from his shirt and taught me how to tie a fisherman’s knot. I thanked him for teaching me, and I meant it. People need human contact.

“It’s like when my siblings and I used to call down to Claudio. We couldn’t even speak the same language, but somehow he helped so much. So now I make a point of telling the clients that I’m always free if they want to talk. My job is to be there for them.

“I love working at the shelter. I feel like I’m actually able to help people. I can’t change everything about their lives, but I’m making them feel comfortable. I’m supporting them.

“The other week, one of our clients overdosed at the hotel and an ambulance came. I overheard a paramedic talking about what it was like when the refugees were here. ‘Those kids would call 911 just for fun,’ she said. She was laughing about it, but I was aghast. That was me! How things change.”