What it’s like to live on a Syrian refugee’s stipend

What it’s like to live on a Syrian refugee’s stipend

Once the tearful photo-ops are over, newly arrived Syrian refugees face the task of making a life in Canada. It’s not a leisurely process: the vast majority need to learn English, integrate into a new culture and acquire the skills necessary to support themselves before their financial aid runs out. Complicating matters further is the fact that Canada’s refugee support system is two-tiered: some arrivals are sponsored by private groups with enthusiastic volunteers and ample funds, while others are sponsored by a resource-strapped federal bureaucracy. Here, a close-up look at the financial realities faced by three groups of recent arrivals who, despite having fled from the same country at roughly the same time, now face very different circumstances in Toronto.

(Image: Kayla Rocca)
The Al Rassoul family

Who: Mahmoud, 40; Isaaf, 38 (Mahmoud’s wife); Reyak, 39 and Saadah, 30 (Mahmoud’s sisters); Malek, Mohammad, Maher, Mohannad, Mouaayyid, Mouaataz, Mariah and Maaly (Mahmoud and Isaaf’s sons and daughters, who range in age from 3 to 15)

Sponsorship type: Private

How they came to Canada: The Al Rassouls lived near the Syrian city of Homs, which fell victim to fighting and air raids. They fled in 2012 and wound up in Baalbek, Lebanon, where Mahmoud struggled to provide for his eight children with intermittent construction work. “In Lebanon,” he said, “my kids weren’t getting an education. They had no future.” After an 18-month screening process, Mahmoud’s family arrived in Canada in December. They were sponsored by the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, a large group made up of students and professors from Ryerson, OCAD University, York University and the University of Toronto.

The money situation: Their sponsors raised $50,000. Because of the large number of children in the Al Rassoul family, the Government of Canada committed $20,000 as a financial co-sponsor. With the addition of an estimated $30,000 in child tax benefits, the family has a total of $100,000 to cover initial setup, furnishings, clothing and one year’s living expenses.

How they spend it: Rent on their five-bedroom Scarborough home: $2,100 a month. Food: $600 a week. Utilities: $250 a month. Cable and internet: $100 a month. (The Al Rassouls get basic cable, and they’ve hooked up their living room television to the internet, giving them access to Middle Eastern entertainment and news channels.) March break camp for the children at the YMCA: $300. Home setup and furniture costs: mostly free, from their sponsors. (Mahmoud: “The sponsorship group doesn’t leave us needing anything.”)

Plans for the future: The family is focusing on education. The adults attend an ESL school five days a week, but progress has been slow. “The problem for us older people is that we’re forgetting everything we learn immediately,” Reyak said. Members of the sponsorship group regularly visit the family to give language lessons. Mahmoud hopes to have a working knowledge of English within six months, at which point he’ll start looking for an apprenticeship—and, eventually, a construction job. Their sponsors continue to raise money, but the Al Rassouls know their day-to-day assistance and support won’t last forever. “We don’t like the idea of always receiving charity,” Mahmoud said. “Accepting help this year was necessary because we don’t know the language or the way of life. We need a year to learn, and then we will take care of ourselves.”

(Image: Kayla Rocca)
Khaled Abdulwahed

Age: 22

Sponsorship type: Government

How he came to Canada: Khaled was studying IT in Damascus when the outbreak of civil war in 2011 interrupted his first year of school. His parents and two younger sisters travelled ahead of him to the relative safety of Egypt, but Khaled, who was 18 at the time, ran into visa problems and couldn’t rejoin his family. He lived in Saudi Arabia for a year before moving to Lebanon, where he stayed with friends and relatives. After applying for refugee status in late 2013, he arrived in Toronto on January 29. “I was waiting for this opportunity for two years,” he said. “I knew Canada had everything. You could study. You could work. You could do anything you wanted.”

The money situation: He’ll be getting $800 a month for the next 10 months, which he’ll have to use to cover rent, transportation and food. Khaled also received a small sum for his initial expenses. Along with other government-sponsored refugees, he spent his first five weeks in Toronto in hotels, where he got extensive assistance from COSTI Immigrant Services.

How he spends it: Rent for an upstairs bedroom in a Little Portugal home: $300 a month. (The homeowner, a local bartender and poet, contacted COSTI offering a room for a single Syrian refugee at a 50 per cent discount.) Furniture: free. (A government contractor provided a bed, desk and dresser.) Internet: $15 a month. Phone: $30 a month. Food: about $50 a week.

Plans for the future: Khaled worked in a clothing store in Lebanon and would like to find a retail job, but he says he’ll accept whatever work he can get. He wants to complete his IT studies in Canada, but he needs to pass post-secondary English proficiency exams first. He stays in constant touch with his family in Cairo, and hopes to be reunited with them in Canada. “Of course I’m homesick,” he said. “I’m used to being alone and without family by now, but I never stop missing them.”

Beyaz, 11, broke his arm while running through the hallways of the hotel where the family had been staying before they found housing. The instrument on the wall is a type of lute called a buzuq. It’s one of the few things the family brought with them from Syria. (Image: Kayla Rocca)
The Omar Family

Who: Dilawer, 45; Dilsah, 45 (Dilawer’s wife); Hozana, 18 and Beyaz, 11 (Dilawer and Dilsah’s daughter and son)

Sponsorship type: Government

How they came to Canada: The ethnic Kurd family was forced to move to Turkey in 2013 after the Syrian conflict threatened to engulf their hometown, Al-Qamishli. The Omars’ 18-year-old son Hassan left for Europe to get an education and eventually reached Austria. “We sent him by sea on the death route,” Dilawer said. “The route Alan Kurdi took.” After registering with the International Organization for Migration in late 2015, the Omars and their two other children waited just two months before landing in Toronto on January 20.

The money situation: The Omars stayed in hotels for five weeks. They’ll be getting about $1,400 in monthly income for the next 10 months, and Hozana (who preferred not to be photographed for this article) gets $820 monthly as an adult on a separate file. In three months, the family will begin receiving monthly payments of around $1,000 in child tax benefits for their 11-year-old son, Beyaz. They also got a small start-up allowance, which they spent on everyday necessities.

Some of how they spend it: Rent on a three-bedroom Mississauga apartment: $1,300. Utilities: $100. Furniture: free. Initial food and supplies: $156. (Dilawer: “Dollarama cheated us. We went and couldn’t find anything that cost a dollar!”) Phone: $60. (The family still lacks basics, like curtains, a television and a vacuum cleaner.)

Plans for the future: Dilawer speaks four languages (Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish and Russian) and is keen to add English to his repertoire. He’s a farming expert with decades of experience with harvesters and tractors, and he’d like to get licensed to work in agriculture in Canada. Hozana hasn’t decided what to study yet, but plans to enroll in a university as soon as she can. The Omars are concerned about making ends meet once their stipend runs out. “We need to move fast,” Dilawer said. “What I’m seeing is a disconnect between the needs of the refugee and the monthly income for living expenses. You get an income that is worse than not enough. I think this is something the government did to motivate refugees to go out and work quickly.”