Syrian Refugees Open Up To Minister About Their Struggles

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OTTAWA — They might not yet be able to vote but that's not stopping Syrians from taking part in one element of Canadian political life — giving their MP an earful.

Over two dozen Syrians who've arrived in Canada since the fall were in Ottawa Thursday to get a tour, thanks to their member of Parliament Melanie Joly.

The small reception she held for them on Parliament Hill at first had all the hallmarks of a typical political meet and greet, guests nibbling on hummus and chips before Joly came and began shaking hands and posing for photos.

But then she asked if they had any questions. The group instantly crowded around.

melanie joly syrian refugees
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly meets with Syrian refugees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I do not want to sit at home,'' said Aida Farres, telling Joly she is in her 40s and used to work assisting with organ transplants in Syria, but can't find a job now.

Joly offered a sympathetic ear, saying Farres' challenges are common among all newcomers and the government is doing what it can.

"I do not want to sit at home.''

But it is going to take time, Joly noted, given that the Liberal refugee program only began in earnest in December and it's only April.

"I'm hoping by next December everyone is going to have a job,'' she said.

For 17-year-old Wanes Nlabandian, the issue is the requirement to learn French. He already speaks English and Arabic. But since arriving in Canada in February, he's been told he now needs to learn French and go to CEGEP, the post-Grade 11 program that's a requirement for Quebecers who want to go to university.

What about all the education he already has, he wanted to know.

melanie joly syrian refugees
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly meets with Syrian refugees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, April 14, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"What can I do to not lose these three or four years?'' he asked.

Think of the future, Joly replied, and how much stronger his skill set will be when he speaks not two, but three, languages.

"You're not the only one going through this and it's difficult, period. But for sure, the idea is for you to make sure you have all the sets of tools to really be able to have great opportunities,'' she said.

"What can I do to not lose these three or four years?''

"And for afterwards, accessing the job market but also, imagine what your kids will be able to do here.''

Farres said afterwards she appreciated Joly's advice but that doesn't necessarily make things easier.

"There are a lot of good people who have come here and they want to work,'' she said.

"I don't know what is our future.''

melanie joly syrian refugees
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly talks with Syrian refugee Wanes Nalbandian, 17, who arrived in Canada on Feb. 11, 2016 as she meets with Syrian refugees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Quebec has taken in 5,358 Syrian refugees since last year, with about 3,330 now in Montreal.

In total, 26,262 Syrians have landed in Canada since the Liberals launched their resettlement program last November.

In an interview, Joly said she's come to know many Syrians in her riding of Ahuntsic-Cartierville and wasn't surprised they were willing to speak their minds about their concerns, which she said were vital for her to hear not just as their MP but as the Heritage Minister.

"The objective was to show that there's a Parliament, there's democracy, they live in a country where there is peace.''

The integration of Syrian refugees into Canada is top of mind for the federal government, she said. It's one of the reasons bringing this group to Ottawa was important to her.

"The objective was to show that there's a Parliament, there's democracy, they live in a country where there is peace,'' she said.

"... And that one day, they, within their lives or their children, will have access to become representatives in this Parliament.''

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