Reflections on resettlement: Syrian student shares impressions of life in Canada
Advocates for support for refugees whose studies were interrupted due to displacement
Students at the University of Manitoba have participated in the sponsorship of refugee students for the last 35 years through the WUSC Student Refugee Program. In December of 2015, the U of M WUSC local committee, with the support from UMSU and the University of Manitoba, sponsored a student from Syria living as a refugee in Jordan. Montaser Al Jajeh shares some of his favourite memories from back home, the reasons that made him flee Syria and his experiences in Canada.
What can you tell me about the place where you grew up?
I was born and grew up in Damascus. For me, that is the most beautiful place on the planet. There is so much history, culture, amazing food, kind and friendly people. Damascenes are known for their hospitality and their friendliness. I think that is something Canadians and Syrians have in common, their friendly and welcoming nature. In Damascus, people you meet in the street can invite you for lunch even if they don’t know you. Another aspect to note is that Damascus was the capital of Arab and Islamic culture for many years. I lived in Damascus until 2011. In Syria, my family owned a business. We sold and manufactured clothing.
Do you have a favorite memory from home?
It is hard to pick a favourite memory from back home, but I have a favourite place! There is this small alley in Damascus. It is a famous place in Syria. In this alley, you can find some of the best croissants in the city. When I lived there, I used to buy croissants and tea and hide in the alley. That is my happy place. I used to go there when I felt a bit down. That place helped me recharge my energy. If I ever go back to Syria, I think that is one of the first places that I would visit.
Why did you leave Syria?
One night in mid September, the regime came to my house and took my father. They made up some charges to detain him and took him to another place in the city. When he was taken, my family started to make calls to see who would be able to help us get my dad out of prison, but the only leads we got had to do with the regime looking for someone named Montaser. While my father was detained, they were looking for me. They wanted to pressure my dad by using me while they were torturing him. It was at that point that my mother decided to take me out of the country.
From Damascus, you could hire a taxi to drive you to Amman. My mom decided to take me to the taxi depot and hire a taxi to drive me to Jordan. I remember how I was making a bunch of excuses to my mom about why I couldn’t leave. I said that I had exams or appointments I couldn’t miss. I didn’t want to leave. At that time, I couldn’t understand the magnitude of the events happening in Syria. At that point, I thought I would be gone for just a couple of weeks. I never imagined that I would live in Jordan for several years. I worked many jobs, often getting paid less than Jordanians. Unfortunately, Syrians were not allowed to work legally in the country. That had an impact in our ability to get and maintain employment.
Where did you stay when you lived in Jordan?
In Jordan, I lived in Amman. I stayed with some relatives. I lived in the city instead of at a refugee camp because I entered the country through one of the main border access points. My family in Jordan helped out a lot. Despite living in the city, I was a refugee, and, as such, there were restrictions on where I could travel in the country. Despite having similar looks to Jordanians, my accent will give away my nationality when talking to the police.
There were thousands of urban refugees like me. Other Syrians lived in refugee camps and joined refugees from other countries like Somalia, Palestine and Iraq. In the city, it was the same experience; there were other refugees in Amman, not just Syrians. There are approximately six million people in Jordan, and 1.2 million are Syrians living in cities or in refugee camps.
Life in Jordan was difficult because of the lack of opportunities I had as a refugee. If you add to that the stress of being away from your loved ones…well, it was not the best of times. I remember that my friends and family had to stop me at the bus station when I tried to return to Syria. I wanted to go back because I couldn’t handle our situation and the things my father was going through. It was crazy. My father was in jail for no reason. He was being tortured and I couldn’t handle the thought of him suffering.
After 65 days in prison, my father was released. At that point I thought I would go home, but at that point I was old enough to do military service. My age and profile made me an ideal target for the government who was recruiting more youth. After six months of living in Jordan on my own, my family moved there too.
How did you find out about Student Refugee Program?
After my family joined me in Amann, my mother enrolled me at a university, as she could see that I was struggling with having nothing to do in Jordan and working odd jobs without any further opportunities. However, it was extremely expensive to pay for tuition.
When the revolution started and they took my dad, our assets disappeared. We didn’t have money per-se, but we own the building where we had our business but that was gone with the beginning of the revolution. So, we had nothing after that.
In Jordan, one, two jobs…it was not enough to cover your basic needs and save enough for university. They were paying us below the minimum wage because refugees are not allowed to have a work permit. Because of the extremely high cost of university education, I had to give up on my studies. My dreams and goals just faded. I thought that from then on I would have a lousy life and have to work two jobs just to get by.
When I was in Jordan I was working with computers. I actually want to do a degree in computer science. One day, I saw on Facebook a post about resettlement and education in Canada. There was this organization, World University Service of Canada (WUSC) who offered a program to continue your studies and resettle in a Canadian city. I applied for their Student Refugee Program (SRP), did several tests to prove my level of English, and then did an interview with WUSC and Canadian government officials.
After all that process, I was accepted in the program, but there was a problem. At that time, which was before the images of Alan Kurdi went viral, there were not enough sponsorship placements in Canada for the amount of students in need. So, I was accepted but I didn’t have a university to go. I was supposed to move to Canada in September of 2015, then it became September of 2016. I was devastated; I couldn’t live in Jordan any more. I was working non-stop but at the end of the day I had nothing, no money or experience. Everything went away. No savings, no profits. As Syrian youth in Jordan, we were like hamsters, just running and running over and over, going nowhere.
So how did it happen? When did you move here?
After the image of Alan Kurdi went viral, there was an increased support from other WUSC local committees to sponsor students. In October of 2015, WUSC told me that I would go to the University of Manitoba in January. That is when I started to see life in colour again. I began communicating with the local committee there; we did a few calls to prepare everything for my arrival. The students in the U of M local committee are really cool people and now they are close friends!
In December, I was told that my flight would leave in three days. It was a funny call. They said, ‘you have three days to pack, and please don’t bring sharp objects.’ I laughed and asked myself – how I’m I going to pack in three days. I was moving with all my things to a new country. But anyway, after a 13-hour flight I made it to Toronto, and then to Winnipeg. Those were my first flights ever.
Now you live in Winnipeg. What are your first impressions?
Well, I think that the weather is something we can all agree on. It is cold here. I think that Canadians are still trying to get used to it. The climate was a big surprise for me.
A part from that, this experience has gone beyond anything that I expected it to be. I don’t feel away from home even with language, cultural and religious differences, I am comfortable here. So far, I haven’t had a severe culture shock.
Winnipeg seems familiar, as if I knew this place from before. I think that the stereotype is true: Canadians are friendly, and they should be proud of it. Being nice is a good stereotype to have, an achievement for the people and its government. I think they have worked a lot to get that title. I am delighted to see how is that they enjoy and take pride in their diversity. I see Canadians looking at foreigners as a source of knowledge, different perspectives, new ideas that will enrich their ideas, not compete with their ideas.
How do you feel about the way in which Syria is presented to foreigners?
I have mixed feelings. I think it is good to focus on Syria because the crisis needs to be covered, but it is devastating to see what has happened to my country. People have been displaced to other areas of Syria and to other countries. However, it saddens me to see that as the only image other countries are getting of Syria. Our culture has given a lot to the world. Mathematical theories, arts and culture, music, theories related to medicine and the first alphabet are some of those contributions. I am proud of being Syrian. It is a small country but with lots of things to offer. We are friendly and nice people and others appreciate that. Syria used to be one of the best destinations to learn Arabic, because it was a safe place to travel. It makes me sad that people don’t know this, and that they are focusing on the negative. Syria in the media has been reduced to a place where there is war and conflict, a battleground where others test their weapons.
What do you think students, staff, faculty at the university should know about refugees? And should know about your life experience?
I read something very inspirational a few days ago, it said something like, “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help.” I think that is a really good quote. Alone we cannot help all refugees in the world, but together we can help some refugees. Change has a butterfly effect. Changing the life of one refugee has a ripple effect for others too – at the very least for that one person and his/her family. The fact that the person is studying in a safe environment is a big change for the person and her/his parents. The resettlement of students is life changing. At the university, we can focus on supporting students. This is a university where, when you help one person, you are restoring hope in life for that student, their parents and the people around him/her.
I would like to say that the host community also receives a lot. Refugees don’t just come with the clothing that they own and food they like, they come with ideas, energy, spirit, enthusiasm, because they really appreciate the opportunity to start studying again. Many of the students living in Jordan and Lebanon started their degrees but they couldn’t complete them. It is a win-win deal for Canada and for Syrian students. Immigrants enrich our communities and make Canada a great place. That is what Canada is – a country of people from everywhere around the world.
What would you ask people that want to support refugees?
If you are a student or work for an educational institution, you can help other students who began their studies but are now stuck. There are a lot of students, who were studying law, medicine, economics, engineering, that left for Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey as refugees and now they can’t continue with their degree. In the countries where they live, it is very expensive to return to university, as often they have to pay international fees and/or work to support their families. In Syria, public universities were free to attend. I know people who need one course or two to graduate. Now, they are in Jordan, wasting the best days of their life, running in circles in a hamster wheel.
I would like others to support the NGO and the students that helped me to resettle in Winnipeg. The SRP is more than a program that you sign up for to get resettled in Canada. WUSC and the local committees provide you with a community that you can belong to, with friends, we are like a family now. I really feel like I am around family members here. I can’t remember a day when I felt homesick for a full day, maybe I felt home sick for a few moments, but the people around me, they are all amazing and they support me a lot. All of them are volunteers and participate in this program because they believe in the SRP. They believe that education can change the world and transform lives. As a student, I would love for people to sponsor refugee students.
Is there anything else you want to share?
This opportunity has given me hope again. I planned all my life since I was in 5th grade. I knew exactly what I wanted to do every year, which courses I needed to take, which skills I needed to develop, when I was going to start my company. My plan was really clear, but when the conflict started and everything changed, I felt devastated. I didn’t know what to do, and I stopped planning…I was only living day by day. I felt that the flame inside of me started to fade, to slowly die. I want to be someone remarkable, someone unique and different and I reached a point where that didn’t looked like it was going to happen anymore. This program gave me oxygen again, the type of oxygen that goes to your spirit.
As part of the 21st Human Rights Film Festival WUSC will host the screening of the documentary Refugees: Who needs them? March 19th – 6:00 pm West End Cultural Centre.
To learn more about WUSC and the Student Refugee program contact david [dot] arenas [at] umanitoba [dot] ca
The U of M WUSC local committee is accepting donation to grow its endowment fund and make this program sustainable. To make a donation, click here.