Submitted by Quinton Gordon, Manager, Strategic Engagement
I’m combing the aisles of the Damascus Food Market, looking for Syrian coffee, when Salem’s smiling face greets me warmly and he extends his hand toward me, clutched in it, a package of Hamwi Café Classic. “Boil it for a while, with sugar,” he explains.
Mohamad Salem Ajah and his wife Marwa Ataya arrived in Victoria as refugees from Syria in summer 2016. They had fled the conflict in their homeland, leaving behind their homes and the successful businesses Salem had built up, importing lumber, since starting his first business at just 18 years of age.
Together with their four young children, they are among the 484 Syrians who have arrived in the capital region since September 2015, many through Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, which turned 40 years old this April. Through this program, private sponsors have welcomed more than 300,000 refugees to Canada since its inception in 1978. Until 2016, it was the only such program in the world, but now, through the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, sponsorship programs have grown significantly in Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany.
Speaking to a gathering of local constituent group members and their sponsored families or individuals last week at ICA, the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, was in Victoria to commemorate the 40thanniversary of the PSR program where he thanked“the Canadians who have opened both their hearts and homes, to more than 327,000 refugees over the last four decades from coast to coast to coast.”
I spoke with Janet Reynolds, a local constituent group member at the meeting, whose family first supported refugees from Hungary in 1958. Janet was just 10 years old when the Hungarian family came to stay in a building on their Ontario farm property. They became like family, and the experience inspired her to stay involved in refugee support. In the late 1970s, she was part of an early sponsorship group under the newly formed PSR program, who helped a Chinese-speaking family of refugees from Vietnam to resettle in Vancouver. Most recently, she has been part of sponsorship groups helping Syrian families to build new lives here in Victoria.
It’s a dedicated effort that requires time to help people navigate Canadian systems. “At the beginning, I was putting in two or three hours a day, just helping people with the day-to-day tasks of getting kids to school, setting up bank accounts, buying groceries,” says Janet. “One of our group members has put hundreds of hours into helping Salem and his family navigate the paperwork and regulations of establishing a business here in Canada.”
When people arrive in Canada, they often have a wealth of business experience and great entrepreneurial skills, but the language barriers, especially written, and the foreign system of regulations here present significant hurdles to overcome. Still as I walk out the door of the Damascus Food Market, more people are coming in to shop, and despite the 12-hour days it takes for Salem and his family to keep the market open, customers are greeted with a friendly smile and well stocked shelves.
The Damascus Food Market is open 9am to 9pm at:
1395 Hillside Ave., at Cedar Hill Road.