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HomeNewsboxRefugees Welcome: They Adopted Refugee Families for 12 Months. Then Came ‘Month 13.’

Refugees Welcome: They Adopted Refugee Families for 12 Months. Then Came ‘Month 13.’

Measuring Success

Three weeks later, Peggy Karas stood in the Hajjes’ living room and reached her arms out to Julia, the 9-month-old. It was six days into Month 13. Unlike many other groups, the Hajjes and their sponsors had not marked the moment with speeches or a cake; they did not seem particularly eager to note the transition.

Ms. Karas carried Julia to a wall filled with the sponsors’ pictures, pointed at each, and told the baby a name to match each familiar face: Liz. Jan. Carole. Cliff. Marg. That afternoon, the three older children had parent-teacher conferences, and Ms. Karas and Ms. Atkins were coming along.

But the Hajjes were also showing small new signs of independence. While the sponsors were still setting up their doctor’s appointments, the Syrians were now navigating there alone. Classmates of the couple’s sixth-grade twins had started visiting for playdates. To Ms. Atkins’s delight, the Hajjes canceled plans with her to attend a get-together for Syrian families at a community center. And Zahiya, one of the twins, wowed everyone by writing down a phone message in English.

Mr. Hajj still had not spoken to his father. But the restaurant was giving him more hours, and his co-workers, more seasoned arrivals from around the Muslim world, encouraged him and taught him new English words. Mr. Hajj even got his first raise, to $13 per hour from $11.50.

As his English inched forward, his talk of going back to Syria subsided. “I am now out of the zone of only listening,” he said in March, still using his native language to describe his new one. “I’m able to talk back to people, too,” he said.

Across the country, as Month 13 turned into Months 14 and 15, the early results of private sponsorship of Syrians looked a lot like Mr. Hajj’s progress — still tentative, but showing forward motion. According to early government figures, about 50 percent of privately sponsored adults were working full or part time.

We have spent over a year reporting on Canada’s unusual welcome of Syrian refugees, looking deeply at several newcomer families and the volunteers helping them. More on the series.

As a group, they were outpacing the thousands more refugees who did not have sponsors and were being resettled by the government — only about 10 percent of them had jobs (on the whole, they were less educated and had higher rates of serious health problems and other needs). Previous refugees to Canada over the past decade — a mix of Iraqis, Afghans, Colombians, Eritreans and more — had followed the same pattern, with privately sponsored refugees more likely to be employed after a year at similar rates.

Around the world, as a response to the colossal refugee crisis, more countries were exploring Canada’s unique system of letting everyday citizens resettle refugees. Britain and Argentina were starting pilot programs, and others were expected to follow.

“The sponsorship program, in my opinion, is the most efficient way of bringing new people into the country, because it provides so much support, emotional, social and financial,” said Mr. Nammoura, the refugee advocate.

In Canada, so many people applied to sponsor relatives of the first wave of Syrians that the system was jammed, slots for new refugees impossible to find. (The Hajj sponsors began applying for two of their siblings’ families to come to Canada after two New York Times readers learned of their struggles in an earlier article and donated the sponsorship costs, but the Canadians anticipated a lengthy wait.)

Even the opposition Conservative Party, which criticized the government for bringing in more Syrians — over 40,000 since November 2015 — than it could handle, supported increasing the number of privately sponsored refugees. “There’s no reason why Canada shouldn’t be harnessing the generosity of private citizens,” said Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Party’s leader on immigration and refugee policy.

Photo

Ms. Karas and Ms. Stark helping Zayiha and Majed with their homework. “How can you help but get attached?” Ms. Karas said.

Credit
Damon Winter/The New York Times

But there was no common definition of success: Was it enough that these refugees were not dying in the Mediterranean or languishing in camps? Was working a menial job for subsistence pay a positive outcome? Many resettlement veterans argued that it was unrealistic to expect refugees to be self-sufficient after a year, and that the real test would be the fate of their children. In a huge country with a relatively low population, where immigration was seen as necessary fuel, many Canadians were willing to make a generational investment.

“We didn’t think about what success would look like,” Ms. Stark said. “We just thought about changing the life of one family.”

The Hajjes wished they could repay the sponsors, but it felt impossible. “They give us so much and we don’t have anything to give,” Ms. Hajj said. “So Mouhamad and I and the kids are always praying for them.”

As the Hajjes and the sponsors left the apartment for the parent-teacher conferences, Peggy Karas asked if Ms. Hajj had brought a diaper for Julia, and the Syrian mother tucked one in her pocket. In the school parking lot, Ms. Karas pushed the stroller and Carole Atkins turned up with the older kids, whom she had collected after school. A janitor let everyone in through a locked door, but looked quizzically at the motley group.

“It’s a big family,” Ms. Karas told him with a laugh.

The twins’ sixth-grade teacher was Stefanie Apostol, a Romanian immigrant who taught a special program for students who lacked formal schooling. She had a lingering accent, a commanding presence and a habit of calling Zahiya and her twin brother, Majed, “my kids.”

She began the meeting by firing off bursts of good news. The twins, unable to read at the start of the school year, were deciphering words. They showed up every day determined, worked intently, asked questions. Zahiya was meticulous. Majed was fast. They competed furiously.

An interpreter tried to keep up with the praise, and as she translated for the Hajj parents, a look of immense relief passed over Mouhamad’s face. His children had gone without schooling for so many years. He had been worried that it was too late, that they would be illiterate like him. “We were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to learn,” he said.

The teacher, grasping the depth of his fear, decided to show him proof. She beckoned the boy and girl to a stack of simple books and told them to each choose one.

“The shark played with Mark at the park until dark,” Majed read.

“The chick did a trick with a brick,” Zahiya followed, more hesitant.

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Mr. Hajj, glowing, looked like a different person. The teacher turned to the sponsors. “Thanks to you guys,” she said, sharing the credit. “You help and support us.” Moutayam’s teacher had been even more direct: She asked the sponsors to confirm that they would keep working with him, and they replied that they would continue until he could do the homework completely on his own.

Dropping the family off at their apartment, Ms. Atkins had intended to go straight home. But at the doorway, Majed wanted her to read him his report card, and Zahiya tugged at her, too.

“I guess I’m going back in,” she said.

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