MONTREAL — Noura Alissa says she's very grateful for the warm welcome she's received in Canada, but admits the year since she arrived in Montreal from Syria has been more difficult than she expected.
"Trying to find a job while learning French has been difficult, but I am trying," the 25-year-old Syrian refugee said in English in an interview Sunday. She said the warm welcome she's received from Canadians has helped ease the transition.
It has been a year since Canada welcomed the first group of Syrians that the government flew out of refugee camps, and both political leaders and refugees marked the occasion over the weekend with a mixture of pride and an acknowledgment of the challenges that remain.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said he would never forget joining Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other cabinet ministers at Toronto's Pearson airport on Dec. 10, 2015 to greet the first plane load of refugees.
"At a time when many countries closed their doors to refugees, we in Canada said 'come on in, you're welcome,'" he said at an event in Montreal on Sunday to mark the anniversary.
Prime Minister Trudeau also noted the anniversary on Twitter over the weekend and federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, who also joined Trudeau in welcoming the first plane load, noted the fond memories she had of that night in a tweet posted Saturday.
McCallum and other political leaders at the Montreal event acknowledged there are still challenges to face.
Despite the arrival of more than 36,000 refugees since Nov. 2015, he noted many newcomers were still waiting to be reunited with their families.
"The first thing (newly-arrived refugees) would tell me was 'Thank you Canada,'" he said. "The second thing they would say is 'there are members of our family still in Syria.' So there is still work to do," he said.
Canada has almost 19,000 applications to process, and another 4,124 applicants that have been approved but have not yet arrived in Canada.
Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil noted that while the refugees' first year in Canada has been mostly spent picking up a new language and settling in, the challenge is now shifting to helping them join the labour market.
"The next step is full integration, notably into the job market, and that's obviously where the challenges are," she said.
Her sentiment was echoed by several of the refugee families at the event, some of whom say they need more help to overcome barriers to employment.
George Kas Barsoum, a 38-year-old head and neck surgeon from Syria, says he may face years of exams before he is allowed to practice medicine in the province of Quebec, if ever. He says he has been living off his savings while he studies French from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, but says his money won't last forever.
His wife, Chama Zakko, a dentist, says she hopes the federal and provincial governments won't abandon refugees once their first 12 months is up.
"We don't need help with money but we need help to study in our domain," she said.
As for Alissa, she says she was finally hired for a temporary job making Christmas decorations, but is now back looking for other employment.
Nevertheless, the refugees at the event all said they are grateful to be in Canada.
"You cannot compare the life in a peaceful country with life where there is war," Kas Barsoum said. "This country is peaceful, this country is welcoming, it is very, very good."