A year after Isber and Rita Kattah Al Jabal got married, the war started in Aleppo, Syria. They were forced to make a difficult decision. Leaving Syria and accepting refugee status in Jordan meant they would be safe, but it also meant they and the child they were pregnant with wouldn’t be allowed to go back home. 

How one Syrian refugee is settling into his new life in Calgary. Produced by Amy Simpson.

The couple made the risky choice and said goodbye to their life in Aleppo. Little did they know their journey would eventually take them to Calgary where they would be surrounded by a large network of support. Despite all the difficulties accompanied in transitioning countries, Isber would go on to quickly find a job in his profession — cutting hair at Salon Luminous in SW Calgary.

Since November 2015, the Canadian government has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees. Individuals and groups privately sponsored 18,000 refugees. In 2016, roughly 3,400 Syrian refugees moved to Calgary The Kattah Al Jabals were one of the privately sponsored families. In April 2016, a group from Westside King’s Church greeted them at the Calgary International Airport.

“We were very happy. We thought there was going to be one person or two, but to see so many families waiting at the airport to welcome us, that was very nice feeling,” Rita Kattah Al Jabal said.

Syrian RefugeeAl Jabal is hoping to build up his clientele but is thankful to have a job because unfortunately, for many other Syrian refugees, finding one has not been that easy. Photo by Amy Simpson.

The church has not only supported them financially, but a group of volunteers has taken them under their wing to make the transition as smooth as possible. Speaking through a translator, Isber said, “We were happy to have the support from the church and from the families. They were willing to help us, drive us and translate. That made it way easier.”

Julianna Swaita, a church volunteer, has been a huge help to the Kattah Al Jabal’s because she also speaks Arabic. Their relationship has grown into a strong friendship and through her connections, she was able to find Isber his job.

“A friend who goes to a hair salon said the hair stylist happened to be asking that she was looking for a hair stylist, and she told her that I think I have the right person for you. And so thank God, we went and it worked out,” Swaita said.

Isber cut and styled hair for 25 years while living in Syria and Jordan, and he loves everything about it. Although his job at Salon Luminous is only part-time on the weekend, many people from the church are helping build up his clientele.

Leanna Michaud, one attendee of the church was waiting in the salon as Isber cut her son’s hair. She said when she heard Isber had got a job at Salon Luminous, she decided to take her kids to him instead of their usual place – Beaners.

The support Isber and his family have received is remarkable and is making their transition to life in Canada smooth, the family says. However, for other Syrian refugees, the transition hasn’t been as easy.

“I strongly believe that the key to this success lies in the openness and welcoming of the community. And Calgarians are fantastic,” – Beata Lutaba

Beata Lutaba, the community coordinator at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, said cultural barriers, required certification and access to English classes have negatively affected the employability of many refugees. “Some people that came a year ago, they are just starting to speak basic English, and so, it is difficult for them to find employment especially in our current economic situation,” she said.

Many refugees don’t have the support network Isber and Rita were given. “We had certain limitations as far as our resources so privately sponsored refugees usually got a huge group of people who were sponsoring them and for government-assisted refugees we were able to assign maybe one volunteer to a family,” Lutaba said.

Finding jobs are important for refugees because federal funding only lasts for a year. After that, they are moved to provincial support. Lutaba said that a year of federal funding wasn’t long enough and almost every Syrian refugee is now on provincial assistance.

There are discussions going at the federal level about the possibility of accepting more refugees in 2017. Lutaba hesitates because of the systematic challenges the Immigration Society faced with the large influx last year, but she believes it is doable if they are better prepared and Canada continues to foster an open environment.

“I strongly believe that the key to this success lies in the openness and welcoming of the community, and Calgarians are fantastic,” Lutaba said.

Lutaba added the immigration society used to sign up two to three volunteers a week, but when the families started arriving they were suddenly signing up two to three a day.

The interview with Isber and Rita Kattah Al Jabal has been translated from Arabic to Canadian English.


The editor responsible for this article is Hannah Willinger, hwillinger@cjournal.ca

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