When Syrian refugee Mohammad Ali and his family arrived in Canada they needed help with housing, settling into the community, and starting school in a new country. Now less than four years later, the family is thriving in their new community and Ali (as his family refers to him) is the co-owner of Alnoor Halal Meat and Grocery Store, along with Khaled, another Syrian man.
“Here we are four years later. We started a business, and we are now moving to a bigger place. And we’ve got plans to start more businesses in the future. We’re growing step-by-step,” said Ali.
“This is not only for us, but we’re also doing this for the Canadian community too. This store that we will be opening soon is going to have at least six job opportunities. We are planning to grow, expand and make the community grow too,” he continued excitedly.
The Lofti family consisting of Ali, his parents, five siblings, and a cousin arrived in 2017. Along with 4,400 other refugees they were able to emigrate to BC through the Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP). An initial round of 22 families arrived in Abbotsford in 2016 and then other families gradually followed as their refugee claims were processed.
“The government brought in many families that were distributed between provinces, and Abbotsford was one of the cities in BC that received families. They sent bigger families to Abbotsford because they believed that the housing was cheaper here and possibly more spacious. When the families first arrived, they went directly to Sandman Hotel to access RAP services, and from there, they started the process of settling in,” said May, a caseworker with the Moving Ahead Program (MAP).
With around 60 families to resettle, Archway staff and the community rallied to make sure that their basic and more complex needs were met.
Volunteers from the Archway Community Connections Program took clients on tours to show them how to shop at grocery stores and get around their new city.
“The generosity of Canadians was amazing. They shared what they had including furniture, clothing and there were even cars donated!” said May. “We helped them transfer the registration to their new vehicles and obtain BC driver’s licenses.
Reflecting back, Ali shared, “We appreciate the Canadian government support so much. It means a lot to us, but at the same time, we didn’t want to make it permanent. We want to depend on ourselves.”
The family also expressed gratitude towards the Syrian and Canadian communities at large for standing with them, especially in the beginning.
“When we opened the store, you would see people from multiple cultures just show up and buy stuff. They did not really need it, nor did they even know what some of it was. They just wanted to put the money into our business to show support. We truly thank everyone for their support,” said Aziza, Ali’s sister.
“We are in a good place. Archway was also supporting us very well. They were telling everybody that we have an Arabic store that they should visit. When we went to our English classes, the teachers were telling people about our store and that we are successful,” she continued.
While their business was not majorly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic it has made connecting to their community harder.
“Socializing is just extremely hard. Especially for Eastern culture. Eating together and having big weddings and other events are usually weekly events. All those have just been gone for like year and a half now,” Ali expressed.
Initial Settlement Challenges
One of the challenges that quickly became apparent was the difficulty in finding adequate housing despite housing in Abbotsford being considered relatively more spacious.
“A typical Canadian home has two or three bedrooms, which wasn’t enough for the large family units we were assisting. Everything happened suddenly and finding affordable and accessible housing consumed a lot of our time,” said May.
Thanks to the staff’s hard work and the generosity of landlords, the first 22 families were all settled within two to three months and out of their cramped hotel accommodations.
Another challenge was the health of the refugees and finding family doctors for consistent care.
“There were a lot of health issues and even emergency ER visits in the beginning,” shared May. “Some of it was stress related. After all they went through, from the Syrian war to living as refugees to emigrating to a new country, it’s understandable.”
To help the integration process, adults started English lessons through the Archway Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program.
All school-age children were registered with the school district and immediately started attending school. The Abbotsford School District took care of bussing and other supports to remove barriers to education.
Years of war and living in refugee camps had disrupted their education and the students worked hard to catch up to their Canadian peers.
“Eventually, the children were the ones helping the parents. They are usually fast, resilient, and adapting very well,” May said.
Youth attended after-school programming through the Archway Immigrant Youth Services program where they continued learning the language and building relationships with other refugees and immigrants.
When the Lotfi family arrived, they had limited English skills and relied on their father Mahmoud to translate.
“But now we are the ones helping him. You cannot do much without knowing the language so it’s the number one challenge for refugees,” Ali shared.
Giving back to the community
When families first arrived, they used the Archway Food Bank but found that some of the food wasn’t culturally appropriate.
“In our culture, especially Islam culture, we can’t eat things like pork or food with alcohol. Families would return them to the Food Bank rather than letting them go to waste.”
To respect their dietary needs, the Food Bank began preparing hampers with Halal (meaning ‘permissible’ in Arabic) foods. Nowadays, Ali’s grocery store provides some of the Halal food products given out.
Another way that the Alnoor store supports the community is by providing orders for the Abbotsford Mosque to give out to the families in need. They have supported over 90 families to date.
After five years, most families don’t need continued support because they are independent. “Either they’re working, or their children are working, and their English is improving daily,” May shared.
When asked what he wished that people knew about refugees, Anas the Supervisor of the MAP program concluded by saying,
“People have misconceptions about refugees and immigrants from the news and films. I wish that people would have a better understanding of the diverse cultures coming to Canada. They are building Canada. They are working with us to build Canada and their children will be the engineers and the doctors and leaders of the coming generations. So, we should all be welcoming.”
Lofti Family with co-owner Khaleed (in blue)
This is not only for us, but we’re also doing this for the Canadian community too. This store that we will be opening soon is going to have at least six job opportunities. We are planning to grow, expand and make the community grow too.