There were only so many things the Internet could have prepared Alaa for before his arrival in Ottawa in January, 2016 – the shock of blistering cold temperatures and knee-deep piles of snow didn’t make the list.
But as a refugee of the Syrian crisis, the shock could not be matched by the relief he felt being in a country where he says he could “finally feel safe.”
Today, thanks to United for Refugees donors, Alaa is learning English, has a job, and has created a local dance group to bring the beauty of Syria to his new home.
The first step of a long journey
Having fled to Jordan when circumstances in Syria became too dangerous, Alaa spent four years adjusting to a new life, where the future always seemed uncertain. He says it “felt like a dream” when his father called one day, telling him they would be going to Canada in the next month. “I stopped everything,” he says.
Alaa and his family were registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. Canada’s government works closely with the UNHCR to resettle refugees and provide stability to those fleeing persecution who have no hope of relief.
A refugee is a unique type of immigrant, in that while other types choose settle permanently in another country, refugees are forced to flee. While each group has its own challenges for integration, refugees display some of the highest needs.
“When you live in any country, and then you have to move … Not because you want to, but because you have to move. It’s so difficult, like maybe you have to cry, because your life is there,” says Alaa.
When Alaa arrived in Ottawa, it was as if a reset button was pressed on his life. “You have to start from zero. You have to find everything – friends, job, home. You have to start from zero, to go up,” he says.
Escaping a harsh reality is just the first step in a long journey. United for Refugees donors support refugees like Alaa as they take on new challenges in their new home.
Alaa stayed in a downtown Ottawa hotel for nearly two months after his arrival. There, agencies often offered their support to help him and others with the resources they needed – things like language training, counselling, and mental health services.
After agreeing to participate in a skating program, a counsellor referred Alaa to World Skills Employment Centre. Never did he expect that the people he met that day would help lead him to his first job in Canada.
A new job – a new life
“It’s very important to find a place to ask questions. They taught me how to make a resume, how to introduce myself when you go to find a job, how to do an interview,” says Alaa.
Alaa Al Olaby is a job search workshop facilitator working with World Skills’ Roadmap to Employment program – a key employment support funded by UFR, helping refugees and newcomers with lower language skills find a job that matches their skills and education. He worked closely with Alaa to help him find a job that suited him.
“His background was working as a chef. He started by packaging tea, and now recently he’s got a job in his field,” says Al Olaby. “He’s a shawarma chef, and he’s working in a very busy place – doing everything that’s expected and more.”
“It was difficult for me in the beginning,” says Alaa. “But when you challenge yourself, you can do it.”
Not only has Alaa learned English in just six months, he has also turned a hobby into a business – gathering a group of new-found friends and forming a cultural dance group. They have booked over 15 shows in the past three months.
“I want to show every Canadian what a Syrian means – for everything, for food, for dancing for culture. Syria now has a war, so I will bring a beautiful Syria to here,” he says.
To date, thanks to the generosity of donors, UFR has raised over $877,000 – money that is enabling local settlement programs to help hundreds of others make a home, help put food on their tables, learn English, receive mental health and other supports, and get connected to job opportunities.
United Way Ottawa launched United for Refugees in collaboration with the Community Foundation of Ottawa, the City of Ottawa, and Refugee 613. As a partner, United Way is committed to ensuring that newcomers fleeing the Syrian crisis continue to have access to the vital community services they depend on.
“Ottawa has received over 1,500 refugees in the past year,” says Al Olaby. “The needs are high and expected to last for several years. It is important to keep giving. From what we know as a service provider, the need is always ongoing.”
“Syrian refugees, I see them as my family,” he says. “They are hard workers, they are committed, they want to achieve success. They want to pay back, they want to say thank you, to Canada.”
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