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Syrian refugees mark 5 years in Canada by becoming citizens

Five years ago, the first government plane filled with Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war touched down in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the newcomers, inviting them to join the Canadian “family.”

Today, 29 of them from 11 families will celebrate that anniversary in a very special way — by getting sworn in as Canadian citizens.

One is Rahaf Zwayne, who was single and 28 years old when she arrived in her new country — so desperate to leave the violence and fear behind her that she had considered crossing by migrant boat to Europe from Turkey.

Sponsored by a Canadian couple, she worked to obtain a diploma in hospitality and tourism and settled into a new life in Canada.

“It’s like a movie,” she said.

WATCH / Rahaf Zwayne on becoming Canadian

New Canadian and former Syrian refugee Rahaf Zwayne describes what it will be like when she gets her Canadian citizenship. 0:42

She said her efforts to integrate into a new culture have brought with them many challenges, including some experiences of racism and anti-refugee backlash. But the kindness of her sponsors and the many other Canadians who have helped her are far more important, she said.

“I just feel like I have wings now. I feel free. I feel like there are a lot of things I can do now,” she said. “And it’s wonderful to live in a country that respects human rights and respects people.”

The Syrian refugee resettlement initiative was a national project, drawing governments, community volunteers, sponsors and businesses together to bring thousands Syrians to the country.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino called it an “ambitious effort” by the Canadians who welcomed the newcomers with kindness and generosity.

“In the face of a humanitarian crisis, Canadians opened their homes and their hearts, and helped over 70,000 Syrian refugees to start new lives in Canada. Since then they’ve made immeasurable contributions to communities across the country,” he said.

Mendicino will take part in today’s special ceremony to welcome them to the Canadian family and wish them success in their new home. 

Samer Al Jbawi had the advantage of speaking English when he arrived as a Syrian refugee five years ago. Now, he helps other newcomers as a settlement counsellor in Ottawa.

WATCH / Samer Al Jbawi on finding a new identity

New Canadian and former Syrian refugee Samer al Jbawi describes how his new citizenship makes him feel. 0:52

In a ceremony that was delayed by the pandemic, he and his family are being sworn in as Canadian citizens today.

“I think definitely I will be proud of my new identity, because getting Canadian citizenship, being a Canadian, this is a new life for me. A new nationality, a new identity. Dignity,” he said.

The government has helped fund settlement supports such as orientation, language assessment and training, employment services, transportation, translation and child care.

Al Jbawi said many refugees have found adjusting to a new culture and finding jobs to be their biggest challenges. He’s still struggling with another: the cold.

“I can say that I like almost everything except one thing, which is the weather. Until now, I haven’t adapted to the cold weather, the winter,” he said. “But for the rest, I think everything is more than perfect.”

WATCH / Samer Al Jbawi on Canada’s climate

New Canadian and former Syrian refugee Samer al Jbawi says Canada is a nearly perfect country except for one complaint common to new and old Canadians alike. 0:22

Fadi Al Gabbash agrees that the long Canadian winter is hard to get used to.

He and his nine-year-old daughter Leyla are also being sworn in as Canadians today. His wife is still working on her English language proficiency and his other children were born here.

“Canada is, in my opinion, is the best country in the world. So I am so glad and proud to be a member of the Canadian family now,” he said.

He is grateful for what Canada offers his family, including a good education. But he misses his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in five years.

Citizenship gives him the right to obtain a Canadian passport, but he said it’s not safe to travel to see his relatives in Syria now.

Fadi Al Gabbash is pictured here with wife Marwa Barakat, baby daughter Layan, son Ahmad and daughter Leyla. (Submitted by Fadi Al Gabbash)


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