After leaving some family members behind, Somali refugees say connecting with their new communities is next to impossible
FOURTH IN A SERIES: In Surrey, 40 per cent of residents are immigrants. With this series, we look at the challenges they face as they struggle to build a new life here.
The last time Khadija Ahmed saw her son he was four weeks old.
Today, he’s six.
The Somali refugee thought the day she learned of being accepted into Canada would be the happiest of her life, but it was actually a day that ripped her life apart, a day that has left years of suffering in its wake.
Her son was just two weeks old when she learned she was coming to Canada in 2009.
But there was a big problem. Ahmed filed her application several years earlier, including her three sons. She hadn’t updated it to include her husband or infant son.
She was forced to make a choice no mother should ever have to make: Stay with her husband and newborn son and start the application process all over again or leave with three of her children, hoping to give them a better life, hoping the rest of her family would be soon behind her.
She chose the latter.
“Every day (they) call me,” she said slowly, sitting in City Centre Library in Surrey’s downtown core, tears filling her eyes. “My family is broken.”
She’s still pushing to get them here.
From 2010 to 2012, Surrey housed 26 per cent – or 555 – of the province’s government-assisted refugees like Ahmed. The highest number came from Somalia.
“They’re the poorest of the poor,” said Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, co-chair of the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition (SPRC), adding they’re often women and children.
“They have no alternative to go back to their countries. Many of them have been living in camps for a long time. And the average transportation loan is $10,000 to $15,000. Arriving with that kind of debt is devastating.”
Villeneuve has been vocal in calling for the “immoral” loans to be axed, saying it cripples newcomers’ ability to build a successful new life here, especially considering they’ve been recognized as the most vulnerable people in the world.
More refugees will land in Surrey soon. Up to 3,000 refugees are expected to come to Metro Vancouver over the next few weeks, with experts predicting the vast majority will arrive in Surrey.
Looking at photos on a laptop of the Yemen refugee camp she spent more than a decade of her life in – Al Kharaz – Ahmed points.
“This my house, me no home,” she said. Of life in the refugee camp, which was home to tens of thousands of people, she said, “there many, many problems.”
Ahmed recalled having to use flour and oil she received from the UN to barter for food in the market, having to guard her belongings, and going without water for days sometimes. She was married in the camp at 17.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you Canada. But where is English is problem.”
English is her fifth language orally, but she cannot write any of them.
“I need work. Me want to work,” she said. “You need work? Interview. You need citizenship? Interview. It’s problem.”
While she does house cleaning jobs when she can find them, she’s yet to find permanent employment.
Ahmed is part of Surrey’s Somali Women Self Sufficiency Project, now in its second year, aimed at helping the vulnerable women learn English, learn how to find work and integrate into society.
Ahmed said it’s the one place she can talk about her struggles.
It’s her happy place, an outlet for her daily stresses.
“For two years, I am happy,” she said, since her time joining the program. “Money small, but we come here to the group, we is happy. This nice program. We talk.”
Batula Ekou’s husband was kidnapped in front of her in Africa. She never saw him again.
“Up to now I don’t know if he’s alive,” she said through a translator.
The Somali woman came to Canada in 2010 with three of her children after living in a refugee camp in Eritrea for eight years.
“Living life in the camp was a difficult life. It’s no way for a human to live,” she said. “We would see someone killed. Brothers being killed in front of us.”
This was normal for her.
“Because I living in the camp, I learns what it means hunger. To feel hunger,” she said. “Before the war, we used to be farmers, we used to have work…. Since I’ve been a refugee we go through difficulties. If we had choice, if we didn’t have war, we would never choose to be refugee.”
Ekou was recently grieving the disappearance of her two sons.
“Just weeks ago, I had to grieve because my two sons were missing (for two months),” Ekou said through the translator. These children, from her first marriage, are in Africa.
“There was worries of human trafficking for organs. They had the threat of that. We didn’t know anything…. When you have children that are missing, you’re not sure if you’ll see them alive again.”
One week ago, she found out they were in jail.
She was happy.
After all, it’s better than the alternative.
“When you have ongoing trauma, it’s hard. It’s difficult to concentrate and absorb new things,” she said, especially while she continues to learn English and adjust to life in Canada.
Citizenship is top of mind for Ekou but language is a significant barrier.
“It’s very hard. Our mind is very full.”
For the first time in his life, Mohamed Muktar Mussa is attending school regularly. He’s 25.
Mussa grew up in refugee camps in Africa, migrating to Canada in 2010 as a government-assisted refugee with his ill mother and three younger siblings.
“In Africa, it’s very, very hot. The food that you use for the whole month isn’t going to be enough for you,” the surprisingly articulate Mussa said. “We would not be able to study unless you’re very, very strong and you have the power to study. The camp that I lived, maybe five per cent graduated high school.”
Mussa has been in Canada for about eight years, but hasn’t seen his father in 10.
He wants nothing more than to bring him to Canada.
“He’s in a very dangerous place in Somalia. He’s still surviving there. He never got shot but he definitely saw a lot of dead people. We always worry about him.”
Money is the obstacle the family can’t overcome. After all, they can barely afford to survive themselves.
“We all have the same experience,” he said of Somali refugees. “The biggest thing is we all left a family – a mother, a brother, a father – behind. Everyone would love to have their family together.”
Last March, Mussa decided to move forward with his education. He currently attends Invergarry Adult Education Centre and is working to get his Grade 12 diploma while he works part-time.
He’s student council president.
He has three more classes left until he graduates and aspires to one day become a police officer.
Mussa said he feels blessed to be in Canada because he can be whoever he wants to be.
“When I was in Africa, I was not counted, I didn’t have the opportunity I have now. I was not allowed to drive. I wasn’t allowed to have a lot of income. I did not have the freedom that I have now. I did not have the food that I have now. I didn’t have the hope that I have now.”
Through the SPRC and a variety of grants, the Somali Women Self Sufficiency Project was set up. Both the women in this story are part of it.
The goal is to assist the women to build skills and confidence in order to become employed.
“It was identified there’s a need to do more than just learn English. People wanted to work,” explained facilitator Carol Madsen.“We’ve had between 12 and 24 women participating in the group.”
They’ve done a variety of skill-building projects including a sewing class and selling henna tattoos and doing African braiding at a farmers market.
Today, the women are cooking sambusas – a Somali version of a samosa – hoping to run a food cart one day, but Foodsafe certification has proved difficult,. The group’s been studying for weeks.
“Most of the women have never been to school in their lives…. So we’ve been spending a lot of time preparing everyone,” said Madsen.
Any money earned goes right back into the initiative, explained Madsen, and according to all involved, it’s been a success.
Nima Bolow, facilitator and translator of the SWSSP, said gaining experience to get a job is important because it helps with identity, something all refugees struggle with.
“The way you seek a job back home is very different. We’re working on resumes and talking about careers. Most of the women, they used to be self-employed. They would take retail store goods and resell it. That was easy to do. You don’t require education.
“But coming to Canada, they became very stuck.”
Bolow said work can also help with socialization and isolation.
“They have socialization in refugee camps. It’s a better life here, but they wonder, ‘Why am I still experiencing anxiety and depression?’… When they first come, they’re in the honeymoon phase…. Then suddenly it comes down. They need time to adjust….We have people who think about committing suicide at that point. What we’ve found is work is the solution, mostly.
“Some come with physical or mental illnesses. It takes time to get connected. If you have a solid community, that will help.”
SYRIANS COMING TO SURREY
Surrey is expected to take the bulk of 3,000 Syrian refugees landing in Metro Vancouver this month.
Chris Friesen, executive director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., estimates Surrey could welcome 800 of them.
Hotels and motels with kitchenettes on transit routes are being sought for short-term stays. “For longer term housing we’re looking for everything – basement suites, rooms in people’s houses, cottages not being used, houses or apartments that are vacant,” said Friesen.
If invoked, emergency housing protocols would include things like cots on gym floors, church halls and arenas.
Jeff Nagel/Black Press