Refugees find warm welcome in Northern Canada

Despite small size, the northern community of Whitehorse has opened its doors to refugees.

Despite small size, the northern community of Whitehorse has opened its doors to refugees.

The ongoing crisis in Syria has caused incalculable devastation and engendered a human crisis that has spilled across borders. While a vast majority of Syrian refugees still find themselves in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, this series by High North News looks specifically at those who have found themselves resettled in the Circumpolar North. What are the additional opportunities and challenges—for both refugees and local communities—associated with being resettled in the north? In this initial instalment the focus is on refugees resettled in the northern Canadian territory of Yukon through a unique set of programs in which community organizations can sponsor refugees directly.

Walking down the long, brightly lit corridor that connects many of the classrooms at Yukon College, we struggle to decide where we want to sit. The few students left in the hallway eye our group curiously as we stand looking slightly perplexed by the seating options. We sit down around a small table with the photographer and myself on one side.

Facing us is Abdullah Alaboud, a recently arrived Syrian student enrolled in the multimedia program at Yukon College. He is flanked by two members of the fundraising committee that organized to bring him here.

From Beirut to Whitehorse

Wearing a large black jacket against the cold that comes creeping in with fall, Abdullah, or Abed as he prefers to be called, has just arrived at the end of August. His 40 hour journey has landed him in Whitehorse, Yukon, a small city of just over 25,000 people in northwestern Canada.

For anyone who has wandered the quiet streets of this small northern capital, it is hard to imagine just quite how different life here must be when compared with the bustling seaside metropolis of Beirut where Abed had, until recently, lived with his parents and seven younger siblings after being displaced by the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Unlike many of the Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada, Abed came via the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Student Refugee Program. This one-of-a-kind program is run in partnership with Canadian campuses and seeks to identify, support, and ultimately bring student refugees to Canada. When they arrive, they receive permanent residency status and are enrolled in classes at their host institution.

Part of the federal government’s larger strategy for bringing refugees to the country, this particular program allows community organizations to become what is called a sponsorship agreement holder. This means that WUSC has signed an agreement with the government that they will support the refugees they sponsor for a year. In this case, WUSC has partnered with Yukon College where the students and employees raised the $20,000 CAD required. In addition to this financial support, accommodation was arranged and the cost of tuition for his program was waived by the College.


Profile sharing 

Abed only heard about the WUSC program in early 2017. He immediately enrolled in English classes at the American University in Beirut and took an English assessment. By September 2017 he had been accepted to the program. From there his profile was shared with institutions across the country. It was not until June 2018, only two short months before he arrived, that he knew that he was going to Northern Canada.

"Were you surprised that you had been placed in Northern Canada?" I ask, nudging the recorder a little further across the table to ensure that I catch Abed’s soft-spoken answer.

Demonstrating an excellent command of English, Abed comments that, "Yeah sure, I was excited, but at the same time surprised because I don’t know anything about the North."

At this, one of the members of the fundraising committee interjects wryly, "Most Canadians don’t know anything about the North!"

In addition to the already significant challenges of being a student refugee, moving across the world, and enrolling in a new program, being resettled in small and northern communities poses its own unique obstacles. The cold, dark winters is one that challenges newcomers to the north. Not only can temperatures slip below -20° C in Whitehorse, the days begin to shorten until there is only approximately five and a half hours of natural sunlight a day.

Although Abed has taken a pragmatic approach to the subject, noting that "It’s pretty cold but everything’s nice," he was also quick to point out that, "even if I feel ready for this, I won’t be."

Determined to find employment

Other challenges include the relative lack of transportation. Abed currently lives on campus which is only connected to downtown Whitehorse by one bus an hour. Not only is this limiting socially, as many activities take place outside in nature and require a vehicle to access, but it also complicates getting a job.

Nonetheless, Abed is determined to find employment despite being enrolled full-time in the yearlong multimedia communications program at Yukon College.

Abed notes that, after having spent three years in Beirut working 16-hours a day in construction in order to get by, balancing his academic and professional lives here will be easy. He explains that this determination stems from his desire to bring other members of his family to Canada and to make up for the time he feels he has lost after being forced to leave Syria.

"These two factors are the most important for me. Because I want to study and have my family. I can’t do only one thing because, if I do only one thing, I feel like I did nothing. I feel I lost a lot of time in Syria and Lebanon… I did nothing there, ‘cause I couldn’t do anything there, not because I’m a loser."

Despite the seriousness of the conversation, at Abed’s insistence that he’s not a loser, everyone cracks up and the conversation begins to drift to more banal things.

Settlement committees

Have you had much chance to explore the Yukon yet? What have been your favourite experiences? Despite some initial reluctance, Abed admits that he did enjoy jumping from a wood-fired hot tub into the icy cold waters of a lake. One of his committee members describes Abed’s jump as "going all in" which prompts more laughs.

This is one of the benefits of programs like WUSC and other private sponsorship mechanisms in Canada — refugees have access to a group of locals dedicated to helping them settle in.

These settlement committees have been credited with providing a much more human resettlement process. This is in contrast with refugees sponsored purely by the government who miss out on the high levels of personalized attention that come with a dedicated team of community members.

This is not without its drawbacks, and every settlement committee is different. As will be discussed in future articles in this series, it is not easy to successfully coordinate one of these committees and those without a strong leadership can leave members frustrated despite their best intentions. For Abed, however, it meant that when he arrived in northern Canada, he had a group of people crazy enough to jump into icy cold lakes with him.

What's next?

While the friendships formed through this process will likely last much longer, the financial commitment to support Abed is only for one year.

The big question is will Abed stay in Whitehorse? This cuts to something at the core of life in small and northern communities where it is fairly common for people to move away after a few years or, alternatively, only to come for seasonal work.

This is particularly true of those from religious or cultural communities that might not have a strong presence in places like Whitehorse (the city is just getting its first mosque, for example) as well as for those who seek further education beyond what is offered at Yukon College (although this might change with the transition to a university).

As for Abed, when asked about his plans going forward, he replied that he is going to wait and see how things play out.

"No, I don’t have any idea… maybe it depends on my education and if I continue higher education at another institution and a job."


Several hours later, I sit waiting in a Starbucks in downtown Whitehorse, the only coffee shop open this late on a weekday. Despite the cool nip of fall outside, there is still plenty of sun streaming through the windows of the shop. A few short minutes after I sit down, Ismaeil walks in. Wearing a crisp black hoody and stylish jeans that would not look out of place in the trendy neighbourhoods of Toronto or Montréal, Ismael presents a striking figure.Like Abed, Ismaeil and his family were also displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria and found their way to Whitehorse via a private sponsorship program. Unlike Abed, who came with WUSC and was immediately enrolled in an institute of higher education, Ismail and 10 other members of his family came together and were privately sponsored by Yukon Cares.

A local community organization, Yukon Cares financially supported the Arafat family and created a dedicated team of volunteers who helped them navigate the intricacies of life in Whitehorse. This involved everything from helping them figure out where to buy baby formula, how to get a driver’s license, and how to enrol their children in local schools. (Check out the forthcoming articles in this series to learn more about these settlement committees).

Between sips of his large black coffee, Ismaeil tells me about the struggles of moving from Syria to Canada via a multiyear purgatory in Lebanon. In particular, the lack of information proved daunting to the family. When they boarded a plane to Canada, they had no idea what their end destination was. When they landed in Montreal and they found out they were headed to the Yukon—Northern Canada—panic began to set in.

Around them other families were headed to Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, or Quebec. Everyone they spoke with either had no idea what the Yukon was or simply said “Don’t go!”

“We got really scared,” admits Ismaeil, “they told us there were no supermarkets, no life. We spoke to the immigration officers and asked them to send us somewhere else.”

Their panic began to dissipate when they landed at Whitehorse’s Erik Nielsen international airport. There they were greeted by Raquel De Queiroz, the founder of Yukon Cares, and other volunteers.

Despite many hurdles, gradually Whitehorse became a familiar place for the Arafat family. Instead of being the barren wasteland they had been warned about, Ismaeil recalls how they found themselves very touched by how much the community came together to support them with everything from free language lessons and babysitting to help finding jobs.

Eventually they began to settle in. Ismaeil’s mother, Fatima, was able to make a living selling Syrian goods and operated a sewing business out of her home whereas his father, Hussein, worked at a local pharmacy. The children thrived in local schools and at Yukon College.

Over two years later, however, Ismaeil is the only member of the Arafat family left in Whitehorse. He emphasizes that Whitehorse will always be a special place for the entire family, including several other family members who have been sponsored by Yukon Cares and have yet to arrive. Nonetheless, for some of the older family members, the possibility of moving to a city where there was a larger Syrian presence was very appealing. After having managed to save up enough money for the move, the family (minus Ismaeil) decamped to Windsor, Ontario, which has a large Syrian community.

Ismaeil, for his part, continues to work in Whitehorse as a barber. Although challenges remain, for the time being life in the Yukon is great. He has, for example, taken up hiking, road biking, sledding, and fat biking (winterized bikes).

“I don’t like big cities. I like the outdoors. People here are great. Everything is perfect,” he comments. Smiling, he happily adds that he has not run into any bears “yet.”

As for his advice for those—refugees or otherwise—thinking of heading north?

“Don’t listen to people. They don’t know the north. Life here is great, the people are good, and there’s lots of work.”