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.

Just Posted

Nurses at the Cowichan District Hospital are thanking the community for following the health protocols during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured from left are nurses Jacqueline Kendall, Melissa Bustard and Heidi Ferris. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Pandemic year like no other, Cowichan nurses say

May 10-16 is National Nursing Week

Island Health’s new Wellness and Recovery Centre at 5878 York Rd. is now planned to be open in the fall. (File photo)
Wellness and Recovery Centre now to open in the fall

Three community dialogues scheduled for May

B.C. Centre for Disease Control data showing new cases by local health area for the week of May 2-8. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island COVID-19 local case counts the lowest they’ve been all year

On some areas of Island, more than 60 per cent of adults have received a vaccine dose

A nurse gets a swab ready to perform a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Island’s daily COVID-19 case count drops below 10 for just the second time in 2021

Province reports 8 new COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island Wednesday

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Canada’s demo Hornet soars over the Strait of Georgia near Comox. The F-18 demo team is returning to the Valley for their annual spring training. Photo by Sgt. Robert Bottrill/DND
F-18 flight demo team returning to Vancouver Island for spring training

The team will be in the Comox Valley area from May 16 to 24

Saanich police and a coroner investigated a fatal crash in the 5200-block of West Saanich Road on Feb. 4, 2021. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Police determine speed, impairment not factors in fatal Greater Victoria crash

Driver who died veered across centre line into oncoming traffic for unknown reason, police say

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Bow-legged bear returns to Ladysmith, has an appointment with the vet

Brown Drive Park closed as conservation officers search for her after she returned from relocation

Most Read