In Canada, Syrian Refugees Cope with Day-to-Day Life

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Welcomed with open arms  -- some even received coats from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself -- the Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada a year ago are now facing their share of difficulties.

Among them, 50-year-old Fahed Fattouh came with his wife and their two children after they fled the war-battered city of Aleppo via Beirut in 2012.

They made it to Canada on an airlift organized by the government in December 2015, some of the 35,000 Syrians who have resettled here over the past year.

The family has been making ends meet until now thanks to financial aid from Fattouh's brother-in-law, who has lived in Quebec for 25 years.

A urologist and forensic pathologist by training, Fattouh has had to start again from scratch. 

"I have 25 years' experience but I can't work," he says. "I don't know what to do."

As the family's sponsor, the brother-in-law made a commitment to the government to cover his relatives' needs for a year. The cost of housing, food and administrative services comes to around about Can$30,000 ($22,600).

Fattouh, his wife Jouli and their two children -- 11-year-old Sparta and 8-year-old Adeeb -- live in a furnished apartment in Laval, in the suburbs north of Montreal.

"Canada is the only country in the world that permits its citizens to adopt refugees," says Stephan Reichhold, director of a coalition of around 100 groups that help immigrants resettle in Quebec.

For many of them, he added, the thirteenth month -- when they must start to fend for themselves -- is a source of profound financial anxiety.

Not for Fattouh, however, who is counting on his brother-in-law's continued generosity.

"Money is important, but it is okay," he says.

His biggest problem is finding work.

- 'Systemic problem' -

To practice medicine in his new home country, he would have to retake at least five years of medical school and then pass three exams because the Quebec medical bar does not recognize his degrees.

"There is a systemic problem in Quebec in terms of recognizing equivalences and achievements that is well known," Reichhold says.

So Fattouh has regretfully given up on practicing medicine in Quebec -- which, paradoxically, doesn't have enough family physicians to meet the population's demands.

He plans to spend a year or two training as a paramedic to receive government assistance finding a job that is not protected by a professional guild.

His wife Jouli, 42, also wants to get training so she can land a job as a teacher at a daycare center.

"Among the refugees, there are many professionals, people who must say farewell to the possibility of finding work at the level they had in Syria before the civil war," Reichhold says. "That is what is so difficult."

- 'A country of the future' -

Fattouh has devoted the past seven months to learning French -- Quebec's official language -- at a free adult education center near his home.

"French is very difficult," he says, speaking the language fluently despite some imprecision in his use of words.

At the Laurier skills development center in Laval, 700 immigrants and refugees -- including 120 Syrians -- are learning the language along with him.

"They are very motivated," director Heather Halman says.

It helps that people in Quebec are "very nice," Fattouh says.

"They don't feel like strangers."

His children, Sparta and Adeeb, who are integrated in regular classes at school, already express themselves easily in French.

Between a quarter and a third of Syrian refugees are children, Quebec's immigration minister Kathleen Weil tells AFP.

"It's the children who already master the language well," she says. "They represent our future."

Despite the difficulties of getting settled, Fattouh says he's happy to be in Canada for his children's sake.

"Canada, it's a country of the future," he says. "They will do whatever they want."

Sparta would like to be a lawyer when she grows up, and Adeeb, a policeman.

Although he's uncertain about the future, Fattouh says, it's most important "to follow the children and life."

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