Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year. Then Came Month 13
by RV/Vijay ·
One year after Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country, a reckoning was underway.
TORONTO — One year after Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country, a reckoning was underway.
Ordinary Canadians had essentially adopted thousands of Syrian families, donating a year of their time and money to guide them into new lives just as many other countries shunned them. Some citizens already considered the project a humanitarian triumph; others believed the Syrians would end up isolated and adrift, stuck on welfare or worse. As 2016 turned to 2017 and the yearlong commitments began to expire, the question of how the newcomers would fare acquired a national nickname: Month 13, when the Syrians would try to stand on their own.
On a frozen January afternoon, Liz Stark, a no-nonsense retired teacher, bustled into a modest apartment on the east side of this city, unusually anxious. She and her friends had poured themselves into resettling Mouhamad and Wissam al-Hajj, a former farmer and his wife, and their four children, becoming so close that they referred to one another as substitute grandparents, parents and children.
But the improvised family had a deadline. In two weeks, the sponsorship agreement would end. The Canadians would stop paying for rent and other basics. They would no longer manage the newcomers’ bank account and budget. Ms. Stark was adding Mr. Hajj’s name to the apartment lease, the first step in removing her own.
“The honeymoon is over,” she said later.
That afternoon, her mind was on forms, checks and her to-do list. But she knew that her little group of grandmothers, retirees and book club friends was swimming against a global surge of skepticism, even hatred, toward immigrants and refugees. The president of the superpower to the south was moving to block Syrians and cut back its refugee program. Desperate migrants were crossing into Canada on foot. Stay-out-of-our-country sentiment was reshaping Europe’s political map. In a few days, an anti-Muslim gunman would slaughter worshipers at a Quebec City mosque.
Ms. Stark and her group were betting that much of the world was wrong — that with enough support, poor Muslims from rural Syria could adapt, belong and eventually prosper and contribute in Canada. Against that backdrop, every meeting, decision and bit of progress felt heightened: Would the family succeed?
Ms. Stark’s most crucial task that day was ushering the Syrian couple to a budget tutorial. Banks were new to them. So were A.T.M. cards. Because the sponsors paid their rent and often accompanied them to make withdrawals, the couple had little sense of how to manage money in a bank account.
Some of Canada’s new Syrian refugees had university degrees, professional skills, fledgling businesses already up and running. But the Hajjes could not read or write, even in Arabic. After a year of grinding English study, Mr. Hajj, 36, struggled to get the new words out. He longed to scan a supermarket label or road sign with ease and had grown increasingly upset about his second-grade education, understanding how inadequate it would prove in the years to come.
As he stared down Month 13, he felt overwhelmed and alarmed. “We don’t know what will happen,” he said.
From the start of the budgeting appointment, the settlement counselor, Roula Ajib, knew something was wrong. “Why are you losing weight?” she asked Mr. Hajj in Arabic. Many other Syrian refugees had filled out in Canada.
Worry, he replied. On top of his other concerns, his father back in Syria was entreating Mr. Hajj to send money for doctor’s visits and for farming supplies to help feed their family, even pushing him to ask the sponsors for the funds. When the son said no, unsure if he would have anything to spare and unwilling to ask the Canadians for more help, his father stopped answering his calls. A few days before the appointment, Mr. Hajj, riddled with guilt, grabbed his new cellphone, threw it to the floor and crushed it under his foot.
His wife, 37, protested the waste of money and told him to be patient. He had recently gotten a job, in the kitchen of a Middle Eastern restaurant. Their children were attending school for the first time in their lives, learning English and French, becoming ice skaters and soccer champions. She felt sure that the sponsors would remain by their sides and that, apart from financial matters, Month 13 would not change their relationship.
“I know our sponsors love us,” she said. “They won’t leave us.”
But she knew her husband was despairing. She had recently found him curled up on their couch, crying.
Now, as Ms. Stark sat at the table, unable to understand the conversation in Arabic, Mr. Hajj told the counselor he was considering something extreme. “I was thinking about going back to Syria,” he said.
A few hours later, his three older children sat with their legs outstretched in an ice rink locker room as two of the sponsors hunched over them, lacing skates. Carole Atkins, a bubbly teacher’s assistant soon to turn 69, was a hockey fanatic, the oldest player in her league. Now she was initiating the Hajj children in the sport, outfitting them with gear and taking them to a weekly class while their parents stayed home. “Skate hard,” she told them as they bounded onto the ice.
Watching from the stands, the sponsors tracked the children’s every move. Moutayam, a fourth grader and the family comedian, was outskating everyone, even the Canadian-born children, charging to the front each time and finishing first. “Oh my God, it’s like he’s running on the ice,” Ms. Atkins exclaimed to Jan Dowler, the sponsor by her side.
As Month 13 approached across Canada, every group of sponsors and refugees had to determine what their new relationship would look like. Some were mutually relieved to be done, the chemistry never quite right. In other cases, the Canadians continued directly funding the Syrians, unable to cut the financial cord.
The Hajj sponsors had already decided that their payments to the family would stop. (While the specifics of private sponsorship could vary, they had raised more than 30,000 Canadian dollars, or about $22,500 in American money, to support the family before the Syrians arrived in February 2016.) The family’s income would dip, but between Mr. Hajj’s earnings and a continued $1,800-a-month government subsidy for low-income families — which he called “the children’s salary” — they would be able to remain in their $1,400-a-month, three-bedroom apartment.
Still, with the deadline nearing, the Hajj sponsors faced uncomfortable, nagging questions: Were they doing too much for the Syrian family? Should they stand back and stop acting as chauffeurs, planners and all-around fixers? Were they willing to let the family make mistakes? Even if they wanted to stop helping, would they be able to?
The skating lessons were only the beginning. Many days at the family’s apartment passed as a series of sponsors knocking at the door, from the mornings when they arrived to tutor Ms. Hajj in English — with a baby at home, she didn’t go out to classes — to the evenings when they took turns assisting with the children’s homework. As they dropped by, they brought extra produce or halal meat, answered questions about mail, drove the Syrians to appointments and took care of whatever else was needed. A calendar on the fridge indicated more reasons for showing up, like dental visits, noted with a tiny sketch of a tooth.
“We have to start to say no. They need to manage on their own.”
A doctor they had found for the family and a Palestinian-Canadian adviser warned them that they were impeding the Hajjes from becoming self-sufficient. Some of the sponsors felt the same way.
“If we keep up like this, they’re just going to become more and more dependent,” said Ms. Dowler, one of the sponsors who advocated pulling back. “Maybe we’re giving them unreal expectations for the next 10, 20 years of their lives.”
Even Mr. Hajj said he needed to make mistakes. “I have to learn the hard way,” he said.
But the sponsors knew how much the family needed. The Hajjes had fled Syria at the start of the war and spent several miserable years in Lebanon, living in squalid conditions, the children working for a dollar a day. Could they really be expected to be independent in a year?
The sponsors, mostly retirees, had the time to help, and they thrived on their shared sense of mission. They wanted so much for the Hajjes: not just the basics, like language and literacy, but for them to participate in the mainstream of Canadian life. They could not bear the thought of the family becoming isolated, the parents marginalized, the children missing out on activities their own children had taken for granted.
“We’re all middle-class Canadians and we’re raising these kids like middle-class Canadian kids,” said Peggy Karas, another sponsor.
One morning in February, Moutayam’s school bus failed to appear, so the boy dialed one sponsor after another until he got Ms. Karas, who rushed right over instead of letting his mother figure it out. She feared the boy would miss a day of school if she did not step in.
“The dependency comes from both sides,” said Sam Nammoura, a refugee advocate who observed similar situations in Calgary, Alberta, where he served as a liaison between sponsors and Syrians. “The newcomers fear taking risks, and the minute they take a risk, the sponsor thinks, ‘They don’t speak English, I will help them,’” he said.
The sponsors resolved to continue tutoring Ms. Hajj and the children but to retreat in other ways. They asked the Hajj parents to take the children to swimming lessons instead of doing it themselves. They knew they should teach them more bus routes, instead of driving them so much.
But they rarely followed through. When the Hajj children missed a swimming lesson, the sponsors started taking them again. As for showing the family more public transportation routes, “I’m 69,” Ms. Atkins said. “I’m not taking the bus.”
“I haven’t really fostered any independence,” she admitted.
Even Ms. Dowler, who pushed the group to do less, found herself signing up the children for camp over spring break and trying to nab a gardening plot for Mr. Hajj, who missed farming.
“I’m not anxious because I know our sponsors love us. They won’t leave us.”
Part of what made it so difficult to step back was that the Syrians and Canadians filled gaps in one another’s lives in a way none of them had anticipated: Wissam al-Hajj had lost her mother as a girl; now the older Canadian women became maternal figures to her, somehow able to trade family gossip and confidences about marriage despite the language gap. Ms. Karas longed for grandchildren and had embraced the four Syrian children as if they were her own. The three eldest had years of lost schooling to make up, and many of the sponsors were retired teachers. When one left Toronto for the winter, she fought back tears saying goodbye to the children.
The next day, when Moutayam was in class, he cried about missing her.
The Welfare Dilemma
For sponsors, one of the most uncomfortable parts of Month 13 was watching the refugees make financial decisions they found questionable at best. Some of the Syrians took what the Canadians felt were the wrong jobs, or signed up for too many credit cards. Others bought cars, even if they did not have driver’s licenses.
The lowest point in the Hajj sponsors’ year had started with an unsettling discovery.
Like other Syrians, Mouhamad al-Hajj had arrived in Canada eager to work, but had been counseled by the sponsors to instead take intensive English classes. (They helped him pick up odd jobs in gardening and construction.)
A couple of months before the Month 13 deadline, he got lucky. The Palestinian-Canadian friend who was advising the group called in a favor the sponsors never could have: He phoned an Egyptian immigrant he had helped years ago who now managed a shawarma restaurant in a mall food court and asked if he could give Mr. Hajj a job. Soon, Mr. Hajj was working a couple of evenings a week in addition to continuing English classes.
But when Liz Stark accompanied Mr. Hajj to the bank to deposit a paycheck, she scanned his transactions and noticed something alarming: a couple of thousands of dollars were missing, withdrawn from A.T.M.s. “I thought he was getting scammed, defrauded,” she said later.
Mr. Hajj, who seemed evasive, said he had taken out the money to stock up on food. “I wanted to make up for my kids the nights we used to go to sleep hungry,” he said.
Ms. Stark, believing that Mr. Hajj didn’t understand his accounts well enough to realize what had happened, went to the bank to try to figure out what had gone wrong. When that turned up no evidence of theft, she and the other sponsors wondered if there were other explanations for the unfamiliar pattern. Had Mr. Hajj sent the money to his father in Syria? Stashed it away in a drawer?
A few weeks later, Mr. Hajj asked the sponsors about going on welfare. He had heard about it from his classmates in English lessons. Some were enrolling, seeing it as a safer bet than insecure, low-wage jobs, they told him. One explained that he could work and still collect the government assistance, if he could persuade his boss to pay him under the table.
With a sinking feeling, the sponsors began to worry: Had Mr. Hajj been withdrawing the money to game the system, to lower his bank balance so he would qualify for social assistance?
Even legal use of the welfare system by Syrian refugees was a charged question, the sponsors knew. Some Canadians argued that welfare was a necessary step for some refugees, buying them more time to learn the language, which would lead to better jobs in the long term. A survival job could turn into a trap, the philosophy went.
But across Canada, resentment was rising about the amount of help the Syrian newcomers had been given. A member of Parliament was running for the head of the Conservative Party on a platform of screening new immigrants and refugees with questions like “Do you recognize that to have a good life in Canada you will need to work hard to provide for yourself and your family, and that you can’t expect to have things you want given to you?”
The Hajj sponsors were acutely aware of this concern. “There’s going to be a backlash if suddenly 25,000 Syrians appear on the welfare rolls,” Ms. Stark said. In Europe, the idea that government is taking services away from citizens and giving them to foreigners has become a familiar complaint.
The sponsors weren’t sure what to believe; they suspected that Mr. Hajj was keeping a secret. The situation was “eroding my confidence in Mouhamad and it was eroding my feelings towards the family,” Ms. Stark said.
She and the other sponsors asked themselves: How could this be happening, after they had grown so close to the family? And did they really have the right to know or question how Mr. Hajj used money?
In reply to his question about welfare, Ms. Karas did not mince words. “We didn’t bring you here and give you all this help so that you could become a drain on our government system,” Ms. Karas told him. She explained that social assistance was a stopgap measure for people in need. “We expected you to go out and get a job and support your family.”
Mr. Hajj agreed not to apply. “I’m a son to these sponsors, who have lived in this country their whole life,” he said later. “They must know for sure what is right and what is wrong.”
“Working is much better than staying at home and doing nothing,” he continued. “And work can make you earn more money.”
The Canadians decided to move on. “I can’t spend my whole life worrying about what happened to that money,” Ms. Stark said.
In fact, Mr. Hajj had even more of a safety net than he knew. The sponsors had not told him that because of government support, they had money left over from the family’s first year. When he and his family encountered extra expenses, they would have several thousand dollars waiting.
A few weeks after starting work, Mr. Hajj was heading to the restaurant when the subway ground to a halt: part of the line was down. He had no idea where he was, panicked that he would be late, tried to find a bus, and couldn’t ask anyone for help in English. He managed to phone the Arabic-speaking friend who advised the sponsor group. The man instructed him to get into a cab and told the driver where to take him.
Later, Mr. Hajj told Ms. Atkins and his children the story, managing to convey part of it in English.
“Bus left here, work,” he said. “Taxi! Money, money big!” (The taxi had cost $12.)
If it happened again, Ms. Atkins told him, he should take the bus to Yorkdale. She spoke it slowly, syllable by syllable, and told him to practice.
“Yorkdale!” the Hajj children chimed in chorus with their father.
Three weeks later, Peggy Karas stood in the Hajjes’ living room and reached her arms out to Julia, the 9-month-old. It was six days into Month 13. Unlike many other groups, the Hajjes and their sponsors had not marked the moment with speeches or a cake; they did not seem particularly eager to note the transition.
Ms. Karas carried Julia to a wall filled with the sponsors’ pictures, pointed at each, and told the baby a name to match each familiar face: Liz. Jan. Carole. Cliff. Marg. That afternoon, the three older children had parent-teacher conferences, and Ms. Karas and Ms. Atkins were going with them.
But the Hajjes were also showing small new signs of independence. While the sponsors were still setting up their doctor’s appointments, the Syrians were now navigating there alone. Classmates of the couple’s sixth-grade twins had started visiting for playdates. To Ms. Atkins’s delight, the Hajjes canceled plans with her to attend a get-together for Syrian families at a community center. And Zahiya, one of the twins, wowed everyone by writing down a phone message in English.
Mr. Hajj still had not spoken to his father. But the restaurant was giving him more hours, and his co-workers, more seasoned arrivals from around the Muslim world, encouraged him and taught him new English words. Mr. Hajj even got his first raise, to $13 per hour from $11.50.
As his English inched forward, his talk of going back to Syria subsided. “I am now out of the zone of only listening,” he said in March, still using his native language to describe his new one. “I’m able to talk back to people, too,” he said.
Across the country, as Month 13 turned into Months 14 and 15, the early results of private sponsorship of Syrians looked a lot like Mr. Hajj’s progress — still tentative, but showing forward motion. According to early government figures, about half of privately sponsored adults were working full or part time.
As a group, they were outpacing the thousands more refugees who did not have sponsors and were being resettled by the government — only about 10 percent of them had jobs (on the whole, they were less educated and had higher rates of serious health problems and other needs). Previous refugees to Canada over the past decade — a mix of Iraqis, Afghans, Colombians, Eritreans and more — had followed the same pattern, with privately sponsored refugees more likely to be employed after a year at similar rates.
Around the world, as a response to the colossal refugee crisis, more countries were exploring Canada’s unique system of letting everyday citizens resettle refugees. Britain and Argentina were starting pilot programs, and others were expected to follow.
“The sponsorship program, in my opinion, is the most efficient way of bringing new people into the country, because it provides so much support, emotional, social and financial,” said Mr. Nammoura, the refugee advocate.
In Canada, so many people applied to sponsor relatives of the first wave of Syrians that the system was jammed, slots for new refugees impossible to find. (The Hajj sponsors began applying for two of their siblings’ families to come to Canada after two New York Times readers learned of their struggles in an earlier article and donated the sponsorship costs, but the Canadians anticipated a lengthy wait.)
Even the opposition Conservative Party, which accused the government of bringing in more Syrians than it could handle — over 40,000 since November 2015 — supported increasing the number of privately sponsored refugees. “There’s no reason why Canada shouldn’t be harnessing the generosity of private citizens,” said Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Party’s leader on immigration and refugee policy.
But there was no common definition of success: Was it enough that these refugees were not dying in the Mediterranean or languishing in camps? Was working a menial job for subsistence pay a positive outcome? Many resettlement veterans argued that it was unrealistic to expect refugees to be self-sufficient after a year, and that the real test would be the fate of their children. In a huge country with a relatively low population, where immigration was seen as necessary fuel, many Canadians were willing to make a generational investment.
“We didn’t think about what success would look like,” Ms. Stark said. “We just thought about changing the life of one family.”
The Hajjes wished they could repay the sponsors, but it felt impossible. “They give us so much and we don’t have anything to give,” Ms. Hajj said. “So Mouhamad and I and the kids are always praying for them.”
As the Hajjes and the sponsors left the apartment for the parent-teacher conferences, Peggy Karas asked if Ms. Hajj had brought a diaper for Julia, and the Syrian mother tucked one in her pocket. In the school parking lot, Ms. Karas pushed the stroller and Carole Atkins turned up with the older children, whom she had collected after school. A janitor let everyone in through a locked door, but looked quizzically at the motley group.
“It’s a big family,” Ms. Karas told him with a laugh.
The twins’ sixth-grade teacher was Stefanie Apostol, a Romanian immigrant who taught a special program for students who lacked formal schooling. She had a lingering accent, a commanding presence and a habit of calling Zahiya and her twin brother, Majed, “my kids.”
She began the meeting by firing off bursts of good news. The twins, unable to read at the start of the school year, were deciphering words. They showed up every day determined, worked intently, asked questions. Zahiya was meticulous. Majed was fast. They competed furiously.
An interpreter tried to keep up with the praise, and as she translated for the Hajj parents, a look of immense relief passed over Mouhamad’s face. His children had gone without schooling for so many years. He had been worried that it was too late, that they would be illiterate like him. “We were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to learn,” he said.
The teacher, grasping the depth of his fear, decided to show him proof. She beckoned the boy and girl to a stack of simple books and told them to each choose one.
“The shark played with Mark at the park until dark,” Majed read.
“The chick did a trick with a brick,” Zahiya followed, more hesitant.
Mr. Hajj, glowing, looked like a different person. The teacher turned to the sponsors. “Thanks to you guys,” she said, sharing the credit. “You help and support us.” Moutayam’s teacher had been even more direct: She asked the sponsors to confirm that they would keep working with him, and they replied that they would continue until he could do the homework completely on his own.
Dropping the family off at their apartment, Ms. Atkins had intended to go straight home. But at the doorway, Majed wanted her to read him his report card, and Zahiya tugged at her, too.
“I guess I’m going back in,” she said.