Stepping off the airplane, a heavily pregnant Yara Atieh gripped her toddler with one hand and her husband with the other. She was in a country she didn’t know, surrounded by a culture and language she didn’t understand. But all that really mattered was that they had escaped the war raging in her homeland of Syria. What she didn’t know then was how her family would come to view Canada as their home, and the role WoodGreen would play in making that happen.
The Atieh family arrived in Toronto in the fall of 2016. “The first thing was a feeling of safety,” says Atieh, now 32 and living in Woodbridge. Her husband started working after just two weeks in Canada.
“But I was alone in the house with a three-year-old. I couldn’t drive, didn’t understand the transportation system, didn’t speak English, was pregnant and needed to see a doctor but no doctor would accept my papers without OHIP.”
HELPING HUNDREDS OF REFUGEES FEEL AT HOME
It’s these kinds of roadblocks facing refugees that WoodGreen helps with, says Amanda Choo, Manager of Family and Settlement Services.
“We get the opportunity to help them learn about Canada, provide information about language training and employment, settlement services, anything that will help them adjust better.” With the influx of refugees arriving from Syria, WoodGreen launched the Syrian Family Support Program. WoodGreen has helped more than 550 Syrian refugees and held more than 400 group activities.
The very first thing that happens when a refugee is connected with WoodGreen is that they sit down with a settlement counsellor and they do what’s called a needs and assets assessment. This helps determine what are the top priorities that will best help the person or family right away.
“They don’t just have needs, they also come with assets,” says Choo.
“They also come to contribute to our community. They bring to us such diversity and beauty and culture and skillsets.”
QUICK RESPONSE TO UKRAINIAN REFUGEES ALREADY UNDERWAY
WoodGreen’s extensive experience with Syrian and Afghan refugees in recent years has uniquely prepared the settlement team for the wave of refugees currently fleeing war in Ukraine. Already more than 70 Ukrainian refugees have been helped through WoodGreen.
“It helped prepare us in so many ways to understand their needs...and to be fast in responding to needs and challenges,” says Choo. Perhaps more importantly though, she says it has fostered a “culture of compassion” at WoodGreen, which involves understanding the trauma many refugees have suffered as well as the mixed emotions about being in a new country at all.
‘IT’S NOT EASY TO START YOUR LIFE FROM SCRATCH’
These feelings are one Samar Makhoul says refugees, regardless of where they come from, all share.
“If we had a choice we’d never have asked God to send war to our home countries and leave our loved ones. Because it’s not easy to start your life from scratch.” Makhoul, an elementary school science teacher, was also seeking a safe place for her husband and three-year-old son when she fled Syria in 2014. She says she had no plan, knew nothing about Canada and could speak about 10 words of English.
“The immigration officer looked at me and said ‘Welcome Home’. And I felt home the minute I arrived,” says the 37 year old mother of two. Her son is now ten and her daughter, age six, was born in Canada.
She saw that WoodGreen was hosting a workshop and hiring fair for those interested in a career as an insurance advisor. The two-week, full day course was free, but Makhoul says what it gave her was invaluable. “It broke the sadness inside myself that no one had really been helping me and WoodGreen helped me!”
Makhoul says the program taught her how to sell herself in interviews, right down to which specific words to use. She started a job at TD bank shortly thereafter. She has since gone on to work with newcomers and now works as an insurance broker with a large national company.
“I encourage everyone who has the chance to work with WoodGreen, to do that,” she says.
“It’s not just about a job, it’s about community.”
WOODGREEN CITIZENSHIP COURSE MAKES DREAM A REALITY
As for Yara Atieh, after her daughter was born she began studying Business and Accounting at Humber College. But she still had one big dream; becoming a Canadian citizen.
That’s when she found out about WoodGreen’s citizenship program. The free evening classes, offered in both Arabic and English, help prepare newcomers to apply for and take their citizenship test. Last January, Atieh, her husband and eldest daughter all became Canadian citizens.
“I’m so proud,” she beams, “That’s my dream. When I came to Canada and everything was difficult and I couldn’t do anything and now look, I’m a Canadian citizen.”
The Atieh family has now sold anything they had left in Syria, and Yara’s parents have come to Canada as well.
“The education, the safety, everything is better for my family here... after six years I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life in Canada.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Samar Makhoul, whose family has also decided to stay in Canada permanently.
“I miss the smell of Syria. I miss the clouds. But I cannot change it. I am here. I am safe. I have a life. My kids are happy here.”