01/29/2015 05:16 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

A Long, Burdensome Road for Syrian Refugees and Their Canadian Sponsors

HANOVER, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 11: Syrian refugees prepare to travel to an accomodation centre to take part in optional cultural orientation courses before being relocated, at Hanover Airport on September 11, 2013 in Hanover, Germany. 107 Syrian refugees arrived in Hanover from refugee camps in Lebanon today, as part of a resettlement program which will allow them to stay in Germany for two years. They are the first group of refugees who have been offered asylum in Germany after being deemed vulnerable by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, having escaped the ongoing conflict in Syria. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Militias set fire to homes with families still inside. From her safe refuge here in Canada, Dahlia heard the horrific reports and knew she had to get her family out of Syria. But to sponsor them as refugees in Canada would take an agonizing 18 months of bureaucracy and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Dahlia's ordeal raises the question: Are the demands of sponsorship too great for Canadians to bear?

More than 3.8 million people have fled Syria since conflict erupted in 2011 in what is now considered the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. Canada has opened its doors to 1,275 Syrian refugees and recently promised space for 10,000 more. But immense challenges face both the refugees who desperately want to start a new life here and Canadians, like Dahlia, who want to help them.

We were surprised to learn that 60 per cent of the new Syrian refugees will have to be supported, not by the government, but entirely by private Canadian sponsors, such as church groups.

Dahlia (her name has been changed to protect her family) is an Arabic teacher who immigrated to Canada with her husband over 10 years ago. Her parents and many siblings with their families--Palestinians living for decades in exile in Syria--stayed behind in a suburb of Syria's capital, Damascus. As that city became a war zone, Dahlia looked for a way to get her family to safety.

Most of Dahlia's family escaped into refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon. There, they applied for refugee status in Canada.

With few spots for government-sponsored refugees, Dahlia sought in vain for a group to sponsor her family under the Canadian private sponsorship of refugees program. This program allows groups like churches or community service organizations to sponsor refugees to Canada. But there is no publicly available directory to help people like Dahlia find accredited organizations.

The program does allow five or more Canadian citizens to come together and start their own group. So Dahlia found sympathetic people in her community of Hamilton, Ont. willing to join her in becoming sponsors.

Even with a sponsor, it took Dahlia's 13 family members 18 months to get through the bureaucracy-laden process of interviews and medical tests before they were allowed to come to Canada.

The challenges for both sponsors and refugees were far from over.

Canadian sponsors must take responsibility for all the refugee's expenses for up to a year. The Canadian Council for Refugees told us that $25,000 is a reasonable estimate to support a refugee family. But since the Canadian government slashed healthcare coverage for refugees in 2012, the bill can skyrocket if a refugee arrives needing any medical care.

Dahlia has covered costs through donations of money, and goods like furniture and clothing, from her community and local churches and mosques. When her family's first apartment was infested with bedbugs, she had to replace all their furniture.

That isn't her only challenge. As a sponsor, Dahlia must hold her family's hands through every stage of settling in, such as finding a home, enrolling kids in school, and getting language training. None of Dahlia's family speaks English. Fortunately, Dahlia can be there to speak for them most of the time. Other Canadian sponsors who do not speak their refugee's language would have to hire an interpreter to help.

Her family is slowly settling in, but Dahlia frets about her two brothers who still haven't made it here. One is still stuck in Syria. The other is in Lebanon desperately finishing his refugee application, fearing police there could deport him back to Syria at any moment.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told us her organization is concerned the Canadian government is increasingly downloading the responsibility and cost of helping refugees onto private Canadian sponsors. This, Dench says, will deter more Canadians from becoming sponsors.

Canada has a global reputation for generosity and compassion toward people in need. We are that cliché land of immigrants and refugees. Thirty-five years ago we became home for almost 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, the "boat people" who have since enriched our nation. We don't want to see that legacy fade into history.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


  • Mohammad Abu Farah teaches the children at a Save the Children youth centre in Za’atari Camp
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    “When the children arrived at the camp, they had just come from a violent war. A lot of the children were introverted and struggled to make friends. They were violent with one another. "But after we started implementing gardening classes, the children learned to work in a team, and started to build friendships," says Mohammad Abu Farah from Save the Children.
  • Ma’moun’s garden watered by a neighbour’s son
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Ma’moun, 54 and his wife fled to Jordan after his sister and her children were killed by a bomb. The couple now live with their newly married son and daughter in law in Za’atari Camp. After spending long, slow days unemployed in the camp, Ma’moum decided to create a garden.
    “I had a wonderful garden back in Syria. It was beautiful and had everything in it. I made it into plots of squares, with specific designs, and had one flower that has five different looks. White, pink, yellow, maroon, and another colour that I’ve forgotten.
    "My wife and I used to work on the garden together. I made this one, because most of the time I’m staying here and doing nothing, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I worked very hard on it."
  • Naji relaxes in his garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Naji, 33 has been living with his wife and five children in Za’atari camp for two years. The family fled from their farm in Daraa after their village was heavily bombed. Naji dreams of returning to Syria and sitting in his garden, smoking an argeelah, sipping sweet tea and listening to the Lebanese singer Fairouz, like life prior to the war.
    “After six months of being here [Za’atari], I made the garden so that we can start building just a bit of hope and happiness. I’m not very happy. But when I see a garden with amazing greenery and flowers, one just automatically smiles and becomes happy. But here in the camp, there’s no happiness for sure.”
  • Wardah studies in her family’s garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Wardah, 24 fled the violence in Syria when her family home in Daraa was destroyed. She was one semester away from completing her bachelor’s degree in Finance and Economics. She dreams of returning to Syria when the war is over and completing her degree so that she can one day become an accountant. “I did a month course of learning English in the camp, so I love to come here, listen to the fountain and peacefully sit and study. Education is everything to me.”
  • Wardah’s niece plays with the families ducks
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
  • Mazen and his children pick vegetables from their garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Mazen and his two wives and seven children have been living in Za’atari camp for over two years. A car mechanic back in Syria, Mazen's family lived in a large house with a beautiful garden in Daraa.
    “I’ve been gardening ever since I was little. My dad used to love gardening and I learnt from him. You can say I started when I was 16 years old.
    "I used to come back from work tired and exhausted, and see the desert all around me. I wanted to create a space that made me one step closer to home. Even the smell of air is different when there are plants around. Especially in this place where there is a lot of dust and heat, you need plants. Plants make it a bit cooler here.”
  • Abu Tarek’s son fills the fountain with fresh water, while Abu Tarek watches
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Abu Tarek and his family of five left Syria almost two years ago when their house was bombed eight times. They have since been living in Za’atari Camp. In his old life, Abu Tarek was a manager of a Telecom company, he now works as a Security advisor for Save the Children in the camp. His biggest fear is that his children will not receive the education he always assumed they would, go to University and have a chance at a successful life.
    “In the end, water is life, which is why the fountain means a lot to me. These decorations also give you some kind of emotional reassurance. I asked my mother who was coming here from Syria to bring flowers for me, because here in the camps no one was selling flowers and I’m in love with flowers. So before she came to Jordan, I told her please get me all of the flowers from my house in Syria. But she said that the troops stole them. I told her bring me whatever is left at the house. So these flowers you see right here are from back home.
    It was my son Tariq’s idea to use the argileh for the fountain. He was having shisha and it popped into his head, he was like “let me try something”. He kept trying different angles and different positions and eventually it worked.”
  • Ali and his family sit in their garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Ali, 42 and his wife and five children fled from their home in Daraa a year and eight months ago. A fisherman back in Syria, Ali is currently unemployed in the camp and struggles with the concept of not being able to do more for his family.
    “My entire life was good in Syria. Over there, life had meaning. Here, life is like death. I built this garden about three months ago, for people to sit around and to look at. Is there anybody on this earth who doesn’t like flowers?”
  • Adham working in his garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Adham, 41, was a manager of an Italian restaurant in Kuwait. When the war broke out, fearing for his wife and four children who lived in Daraa Province, Adham returned to Syria.
    Adham was shot 3 times, leading him and his family to flee to Jordan. They have since been living in Za’atari camp for a year and six months.
  • Adham with his tools
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    “I miss my old life a lot, I cannot forget it," he says. "Every time we think about it a little bit, we cry. Plants are for the soul. When you’re sitting in the garden, you feel like there are beings around you, and when plants bloom from the ground where there are no plants you feel like you’ve done something. When we see the green colors, we remember Syria. Wherever you look, you see trees and rivers and general greenery in Syria.
    I cannot look to the future now, because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Now the people ask me where I’m from, I don’t say Syria, I say from Za’atari. I forgot my own country. I am now a Za’atari man. I don’t think that I am the only one who will stay here for a long time, it will also be my kids, and their kids, and so on. Only God knows when we’ll go back.”
  • Abu Qasem attends his garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Abu Qasem and his family fled from Syria after their farm was shelled and his daughters and son were injured. They have since been living in Za’atari camp for over a year.
    “When I’m gardening I’m keeping myself occupied so that I don’t get to feel frustrated or angry, your psychology changes when you work with plants.
    This garden is an expression of love between one another, green is good. The smell is wonderful; it’s also good because it captures the dust in this desert. It locks up the heat and makes this place a bit cooler and humid.”
  • Adel’s children play in the garden
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Adel came to Za’atari Camp just over a year ago, with his wife and daughter after their home in Daraa was destroyed.
    “My garden back in Syria was beautiful. I used a specific type of decorative white stone and planted some flowers that made the space wonderful. Here I don’t have anything to do, I am unemployed. This is what made me start gardening here. I think that if one puts one's mind to something, they can do it.
    "Green space is God-given beauty, it calms the soul and the nerves. The situation is bad and everyone is worn out, so this gives us some serenity and at the same time it’s a nice space to sit and enjoy - it’s a change of scenery. This garden gives me hope.”
  • Samar waters her rose
    Rosie Thompson/Save the Children
    Samar, 48, fled to Jordan with her husband and five children after two of her brother-in-laws were killed. Za’atari camp has been home to her family for over two years.
    Prior to the war in Syria, Samar, was a headmistress at a secondary school in Daraa and three of her daughters were attending university and studying Engineering, Architecture and Physics. They had a large house with a beautiful garden. Summers were spent cooking feasts with homegrown vegetables and sipping coffee under the shade of an olive tree.
    “When we garden we feel happy, because there’s something to do, such as watering the plants and such, it just makes you feel like there is life. Where we’re from we’re used to the view of greenery, here there’s nothing, it’s a desert. So if there was a garden we feel like we’re home and it reminds us of our country.
    Even if we are to have little joys, they wouldn’t make a great difference. If you were to have a headband made of diamonds and you were to lose 3 to 4 diamonds from it, it wouldn’t make a difference to you, but you’ll always feel like something is missing regardless. And this is what has happened to us. Our hearts are torn from deep inside from the death that has occurred.”
    “I like teaching children, I haven’t changed in that aspect, but my psychological well-being has changed because of the break in my children’s education. It saddens me very much; I would have loved to see them finish their education. We were ecstatic when they graduated from high school and got amazing grades, it gave us hope that we would see them graduate from University as well, but the light of this hope has been turned off.”