‘I’m not used to sitting home’: Six months after their arrival, Syrian refugees eager for jobs in Canada

QUEENSLAND, N.S. — The journey from life in war-torn Syria to a sense of belonging in Canada is both sweet and sad for families like those of Ziad Zeina, as they settle into a pattern of job hunting and prayers for loved ones lost or absent.

The 38-year-old tradesman, his wife and their four children are still supported most days by the Bay Refugee Group — a group based 50 kilometres south of Halifax that has followed since last year.

The group formed in the wake of the tragic images of Syrians drowning in the fall of 2015.

As summer gets underway, there are over 10,000 privately sponsored refugees immigrating to 290 Canadian communities, along with the 15,780 government- refugees resettled by the federal Liberals since November.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese , from left to right, Wafaa Al , Rayan Zeina, 15-months, and Ziad Zeina, pose in the garden at their home in Queensland, NS on Friday, June 24, 2016.

Refugees like Waafa continue to express gratitude for safety and security.

“What brings me joy is the help of those around me,” she says.

Her four children can romp on Queensland beach — a shimmering crescent of sand — and Ziad is planting an enormous garden. Noor, 7, is able to speak full sentences in English after several months in school, her older brother Mohammad is playing soccer four days a week with a club team, while five-year-old Ahmed and 14-month-old Rayan happily scamper through the living room with a view of the ocean.

But the six-month anniversary of approaches, her husband says finding work as a tile layer will help cement his place in a new country.

“It’s very important to get a job,” Ziad said, as Basim Sobeih translates.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren CalabreseSyrian refugee Ziad Zeina shows off the tile work that he was hired to complete for a local resident in Queensland, NS on Friday, June 24, 2016.

“I’m not used to sitting home and doing nothing. Back home, men are supposed to be , going out there and making money. I’m not used to having someone else pay for my expenses.”

He wipes his hand across his brow, demonstrating his desire to sweat.

Sponsor Allan King, a retiree in Hubbards, hired him for an initial contract for a job at his home.

“I just showed him the pattern and left him alone … He’s a very hard worker, and did the whole thing in eight hours,” says King, gesturing to his gleaming new bathroom floor.

Amidst small steps forward, the also lives with tragic reminders of their troubled country’s wartorn reality.


Wafaa, 37, has been adding a prayer from the Koran to remember the death a month ago of an 18-year-old son who was still in Syria. Being far from the grieving relatives is hard, she says.

“My brother,” she says, speaking English, when asked what she misses. She keeps photos of her lost son, Yasser, who died in the civil war in Syria on May 27, on her smart phone.

Mohja Alia, manager of employment and bridging at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, says hundreds of Syrians are passing through the early stages of settlement and are deeply immersed in language and job training.

“Working is what will give them their identity,” she said in an interview.

“Once they feel they are contributing to the community by getting a job, meeting and networking , mingling at work, they definitely will become more Canadian.”

The association has offered a program that has taught restaurant workers and automotive technicians basics of safety and language skills to get them started in the workplace. Dozens more will be coming through the program through the summer and fall.

Alia estimates her division has met with 130 people in the past three months in Halifax, many of them expecting to enter programs with a limited number of openings.

At the Old Triangle in downtown Halifax, three Syrians are now working in the kitchen, including 44-year-old Eyser Ali, also a father of four, who was placed there through the association.

He uses his smart phone to quickly translate food names from English into Arabic, and now prepares the salad bar and has assisted the senior chef with catered functions.

“Getting a job means for me belonging and being part of a community,” he said.

Nearby, his new boss Steve King looks on, sipping a coffee and nodding his head.

“He doesn’t want the government to pay for him,” he says. “We all have to work. He has four kids and a wife. He has to provide.”

About Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press