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Refugee family reunited after years apart just in time for Christmas

Mohammed Alsaleh arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee four years ago, at the end of November. He fled Syria in early 2014 and spent most of the year in transit in Lebanon, before winning a lottery to be sponsored by the Canadian government. It was month before Christmas when he touched down in Vancouver, and Mohammed describes that winter season as a period of “prolonged jet lag.” After years of living through constant war and conflict, imprisonment, torture, and displacement from his home and family, he doesn’t remember anything about Christmas 2014, his first on Canadian soil. Operating in survival mode, the thought of having his family in Canada with him seemed, at the time, nothing short of impossible.

Mohammed considers the following year his first “real Canadian Christmas,” which he spent with new friends, part of a life he built from scratch, a life that would look very different from what he had in Syria, where he was attending school to become a doctor. Though he was surrounded by his network of new friends and thankful to be settling into a more secure life here, Mohammed longed for his family to be able to share in the joys of the season with him. “During the holidays particularly, you feel far away. You miss your family,” he says. “I was sad I couldn’t celebrate with my family, and I wished I could be with them. I always wished that.”

Remembering Christmas in Syria

Mohammed reminisces about Christmases spent with his family in Syria and his Christian community. “Before the war, there was a lot of diversity in Syria,” Mohammed recalls, “There was peace and harmony between people from different religions, and with different beliefs – like in Canada.”

Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, Christmas in Syria comprised familiar activities including taking children to visit Santa Claus, and admiring the Christmas light displays. “On Christmas Eve, the whole sky lights up with fireworks,” Mohammed shares, “[the holidays were] always celebrated with family.”

The onset of war changed everything. There was neither time nor resources for celebrations, and on Christmas Eve the sound of fireworks was replaced with the sound of gunfire. “Instead of fireworks, there were planes, bombs, and death in the sky," Mohammed remembers.

The path to reunion

After multiple imprisonments for political activism, which included documenting and broadcasting videos and images of military brutality, and being caught in possession of satirical caricatures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his med school dorm room (those belonged to his roommate), Mohammed was forced to flee the country to protect his life. Separated from his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two younger sisters, who made their way as refugees to Turkey, Mohammed ended up in Canada alone.

After several years apart, he determined that the dream of being reunited with his family should become reality. So he set to work. Engaging with his professional and volunteer networks through the Federal Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, and the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia, Mohammed began raising the necessary funds to bring his family safely to Canada.

By the end of 2017, Mohammed had raised $60,00 - a combination of his own savings, a successful GoFundMe campaign, and significant contributions from an anonymous couple moved to action by his family's plight.

A holiday wish come true

Mohammed's family finally arrived as privately-sponsored refugees on October 17th this year. Mohammed became a permanent Canadian resident just two days before, on October 15th. “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Arriving alone as a refugee, and now, as a Canadian, welcoming my family as refugees,” Mohammed beams with pride. “Bringing them to Canada is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Mohammed is thrilled to introduce his family to his friends and his life here just in time for Christmas. Already, they’ve decorated a Christmas tree, and have gone to Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver to see the Christmas Light Festival.

A new year, a new chapter

“No matter who you are, there’s something about the promise of a new year to be excited about,” says Mohammed. “There’s time for reflection, and an opportunity to start fresh.”

Mohammed’s New Year’s hopes are for his family to have a successful transition and settlement in Canada. His youngest sister will attend junior high, and his other family members are enrolled in English classes.

Arriving in a new country, especially arriving as a refugee or displaced person, and not knowing the language, the culture, or any people there, not knowing how to get around, or what support services are available or how to access them, is intensely daunting. Fortunately for Mohammed’s family, they have him and his self-made support network to rely on as the foundation of their settlement into life in Canada.

Services Advisor Pathways

PeaceGeeks’ Services Advisor Pathways project looks to support new arrivals in a similar way. Canada welcomes an average of 300,000 migrants each year. Access to information for newcomers is one of the top barriers to resettlement today. Launching in March 2019, the Pathways app is being designed in partnership with immigrants, refugees, and community service providers, and will help newcomers more effectively navigate their settlement. The app will be piloted in Metro Vancouver, which is home to 153,000 newcomers to Canada, will be available in seven languages, and will be updated by local service providers regularly in order to remain accurate and informative. Find out more about the project here:

What can you do?

The holidays are not always an easy time for everyone, but Mohammed views them as a universal occasion, and an opportunity to coalesce around singular issues to give back to our communities and make them a better place for all. Newcomers to Canada are amongst the most vulnerable population groups for whom winter and the holidays are uniquely challenging.

Mohammed’s ideal for an inclusive holiday season starts with smalls steps from all of us: “educate your children. Remind them to wish their classmates from immigrant families ‘Happy Holidays.’ You don’t know what they might be going through. We can all do that, to our colleagues and neighbours too. Share happiness with those around us.”

This year, as you purchase gifts for your friends and families, please consider making a small donation to programs that will provide refugees with a holiday meal or support year-round. You can also donate to PeaceGeeks, which will go directly toward our Pathways app project and our other peacebuilding projects here in Canada and in Jordan and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

PeaceGeeks wishes Mohammed and his family, all refugees and newcomers, our partners, donors, and volunteers, and their families a Happy Holidays.

PeaceGeeks interviewed Mohammed two years ago. You can read more on his story here:

If you, or someone you know, are having a hard time over the holidays, selected support services in Vancouver are:

Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Dec 20, 2018
Category: Media

#peacehack: Hacking to improve immigrant and refugee settlement

On November 25 and 26 at the HiVE, PeaceGeeks and Simon Fraser University (SFU) brought hacking from the tech world into the community, with an event aimed to address pressing issues confronting immigrant and refugee settlement in Greater Vancouver.

For anyone familiar with the term ‘hackathon,’ an image of caffeine-fueled programmers huddled intensely around computer screens often comes to mind. But beyond being coding marathons, hackathons offer immense potential to connect diverse perspectives and propel targeted, impact-driven solutions. Bringing together newcomer service providers, immigrants, refugees, social innovators, community stakeholders and technologists, our November mini-hackathon called #peacehack put people, rather than the technology, at the center of the process. Facilitated by community tech partner Axiom Zen, #peacehack was an “ideas hack” that used Design Thinking methodology. The process challenged teams of participants to fully understand existing challenges for stakeholders and end users, before designing viable solutions.

The panel discussion on Saturday was particularly revealing towards the shortcomings of newcomer settlement in Greater Vancouver. One of the panelists was Mohammed Alsaleh, a Syrian refugee who was celebrating his second anniversary in Canada that Friday night, and whose journey to Canada has recently been featured in a poignant mini documentary by The Atlantic. Now a resettlement counsellor helping Syrians upon arrival for Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC), Mohammed recounted how existing processes can often feel divorced from the programming that is created to serve immigrants.

A similar sentiment was resonated by fellow panelist Angelique Muhorakeye, a Rwandan refugee and criminology student at Douglas College. Angelique arrived in Canada three years ago with her mother, sister, niece and son. She spoke of being unprepared for aspects of daily Canadian life, from details as small as knowing about sales tax, to aspects as large as knowing what resources are relevant for her family.

Likewise, panelist Michel Pouliot, Executive Director of Burnaby Family Life, cited that 50% of newcomers are uncomfortable navigating the current system to access the services they need, a finding from the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table. As well, the lack of resources, particularly for childminding and staff recruitment, continues to burden existing newcomer serving organizations.

Panelist Nadia Carvalho, Chair of the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, elaborated on the Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), which are community-based partnerships aimed at improving newcomer integration through knowledge-sharing, strategic planning and service coordination between organizations. One challenge, as she explained, is that programs are typically government funded for five years, but the process to become a Permanent Resident often takes longer. Nadia also emphasized expanding industry mentorship, noting that mentorship has been shown to increase employment income for newcomers by 60%.

The final panelist, Adel Iskandar, Assistant Professor of Global Communication at SFU, brought attention towards community cohesion and bridging the connection between Canadians, immigrants and First Nations. Acknowledging anti-immigrant sentiments, Adel pointed out conversely that throughout history, immigrants have always been shown to enhance the communities in which they take part.

After the panel, groups broke out to generate problem statements and identify possible solutions for four key challenges identified in the LIPs: improving access to information on services, strengthening local language skills, building community connections and strengthening networking and mentorship opportunities. A fifth group was formed around an issue identified during the event: fostering local understanding towards newcomers. With participants representing diverse age groups, sectors and nationalities from Afghanistan to Brazil to Iraq, the breakout sessions were buzzing with ideas. A recurring theme through each of the groups was that relationships — in one way or another — were the answer to each of the issues. Creating community through dialogue and understanding helps foster empathy and in turn, solutions. 

At lunch, we paused for a delicious meal prepared by Tayybeh, a collective of Syrian refugee women who started a local catering business from their home-cooked food. Afterwards, the breakout groups prepared to present their solutions and designs for prototypes. An impressive range of ideas emerged, which will be workshopped in the new year with local service providers who work in these areas.

These ideas included:

  • Language Mentorship Program: an app that matches newcomers who are seeking to improve their local language skills with local language mentors (retired or student teachers and other interested volunteers);
  • Keymunity: a self-directed case management engine that consolidates information about newcomer service availability, and helps to determine a newcomer’s need and service plan based on a user profile;
  • Keysultant: an embedded “live chat” tool on service websites, which can provide direct answers to newcomers’ questions through responses crowd-sourced from a community of service providers;
  • Linkedegration: an extension integrated with LinkedIn that would allow users to tailor their employment profile to their country or city’s job market based on their location. Features of this extension would include a resume builder, online mentors and invitations to relevant networking events and courses;
  • Building Community Connections: an event series that facilitates community building, following a tiered engagement model that allows participants to move through the series based on their comfort level. Events include orientations to the city and interest-based meet ups.

A second hackathon will take place this spring, where we will take the best and most developed ideas to teams of technologists in order to produce working prototypes.

Interested in participating or staying in the loop about how we are designing a more welcoming future for newcomers? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Written by Daniel Morton, Nikki Koutsochilis and Cherrie Lam

Dec 27, 2016
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