Mohammad Aljamous contemplates his next move after being turned away by the Canadian Consulate. Photo by Cody Punter

We Followed a Syrian Teen Trying to Navigate Canada’s Impossible Refugee System

We spoke to a number of Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey who have run into a brick wall of Canadian bureaucracy.

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Oct 1 2015, 2:24pm

Mohammad Aljamous contemplates his next move after being turned away by the Canadian Consulate. Photo by Cody Punter

Sixteen-year-old Mohammad Aljamous walked out of the foyer of the Canadian consulate in Istanbul looking confused and dejected. The pimply faced teenager from Syria fled his hometown of Daraa with his family in 2011 after a helicopter blew up some houses just 200 metres away from his own. But after three years of living in a small city on the outskirts of Amman, Aljamous, who has been teaching himself English since the age of nine, realized he was never going to have a future as a Syrian refugee in Jordan. So just over a month ago he asked his father's permission to leave behind his mother, six sisters, and brother to come to join the more than 330,000 Syrian refugees that are currently estimated to be living in Turkey's largest city so he could pursue his dream of moving to Canada to become a doctor.

"I want to come to Canada to save myself, my family, my future, and my studies," Aljamous told me in clear English outside the consulate.

Along with three other Syrian men who he met earlier that morning, Aljamous woke up hoping to begin the process of applying to come to Canada. However, upon showing up at the consulate, they have been turned away by security and given printouts with maps to the Canadian visa office, links to the Canada's immigration website, and a statement in bold letters stating that "Canada does not accept applications directly from people seeking to go to Canada as refugees." As he heads back to the apartment which he shares with 15 other Syrian refugees, the quiet optimism of his boyish smile just barely conceals his disappointment.

"It's too bad when you're just sitting around and waiting for some chance," he said.

The federal government has come under fire from prominent Canadians, opposition parties, and lower levels of government in recent weeks after it was revealed that Citizenship and Immigration Canada had resettled fewer than 2,500 Syrians—of which only 27 percent were brought in by the Canadian government—since the civil war broke out. In response to those criticisms, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced that the feds will be spending $25 million to speed up the process of admitting Iraqis and Syrians who have fled the war by removing the need to provide proof they are refugees by registering with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. In order to help with the increased demand, Alexander said the government will be hiring more staff both at home and abroad so that it can reach its target of resettling 10,000 refugees by the September 2016—15 months faster than previously anticipated.

In theory, that should come as welcome news to those trying to make their way to Canada the legitimate way rather than risking their lives by smuggling themselves over European borders by land and sea. But spending two weeks watching refugees in Istanbul trying to navigate the bureaucratic rabbit hole of Citizenship and Immigration Canada gives the impression that the federal government is doing everything in its power to deter people from wanting to do things by the book.

Yousuf Oman with his wife, Zozan Ali, and son Siphen. Photo by Cody Punter

For starters, the offices of the Canadian consulate are on the 16th floor of a privately owned high-rise, and security is instructed not to admit anyone that isn't a Canadian citizen. The consulate also seems to be the only one in the city—apart from Ecuador—that can't be identified by a national flag flying in front of it. Then there are security guards who hand out pieces of paper with links to the CIC website. After digging around for the past few weeks, I still couldn't find anything on the government's website which indicates where or how refugees can apply. Then there is the fact that despite revelations that private donors have so far accounted for the majority of refugees being brought into the country, there is no information on CIC's website explaining how refugees can sign up to be linked up with prospective donors. Finally, while refugees are handed print-outs in Arabic, none of the information on the Canadian government's website is translated, thereby rendering it illegible to the more vulnerable and uneducated refugees who it is supposedly trying to help.

In the end, I was not the least bit surprised to learn that CIC had received a total of just 11,016 applications—including government-assisted, privately sponsored and blended visa office-referred programs—from Syrians refugees all over the world between January 1, 2011 and September 8, 2015. Anna Shea, refugee and migrant rights advisor/researcher at Amnesty International, said the numbers of people who have actually applied for resettlement in Canada speak for themselves.

"Obviously there are gaps in Canada's policy," said Shea, who was in Istanbul last year to conduct interviews and research for a report on Syrian refugees in Turkey. "If people like you and me have problem understanding it... it's hard not to conclude that it's purposefully opaque."

"About immigration and refugee we have no idea"

In an attempt to get some answers I went to the visa office on the other side of town where the consulate has been sending people. When I asked how refugees could apply to come to Canada, a dark haired Turkish employee said they were only able to process applicants looking for tourist visas and temporary residency. "About immigration and refugee we have no idea," she said, before suggesting that refugees should either contact the embassy in Ankara (500 kilometres from Istanbul) or consider applying for a tourist visa then claiming asylum once they reach Canada.

In the midst of the conversation a Syrian family with two small children walked into the office holding the same piece of paper that had been given to Aljamous and any other refugee that has attempted to get an audience at the consulate. Once they identified themselves as Syrian refugees, another staff member exclaimed "no refugees," and they were soon ushered out the door without any advice on where they could register a claim. Standing on the streets in a light drizzle after being kicked out, Yousuf Oman struggled to understand why they had been turned away. He explained that he and his family are Kurdish Syrians, who fled their hometown of Qamishlo near the Turkish border two years ago because they were constantly under threat from dropping bombs and gunfire.

"It was chaos," he said through an interpreter.

The family had been traveling from refugee camp to refugee camp in Jordan and Turkey in search of safety until recently, when they had to escape the southern region of Turkey because of the government's ongoing battle with separatist Kurdish rebels. Slowly they made their way to Istanbul by foot, where they had been sleeping on the streets until a distant relative recently took them in a few months ago.

"We want to come to Canada because it is democratic and peaceful. We want to send our kids to school and get them an education," explained Yousuf's wife, Zozan Ali, in Kurdish.

After witnessing what happened at the visa office I decided to contact CIC. In an email, CIC spokesperson Sonia Lesage explained that refugees were being turned away because they "cannot apply directly for resettlement to Canada nor can refugee claims be made at the Embassy of Canada." Indeed, despite Alexander's announcement that CIC will be speeding up process times by hiring more staff and doing away with the UNHCR as a middleman, Lesage said Canadian officials will continue to rely on the UNHCR, private sponsors, referral organizations and other governments to identify and refer refugees for resettlement.

Unfortunately for refugees in Istanbul, the UNHCR's offices, like the Canadian embassy, are 500 kilometres to the east, in Ankara.

As for the confusing printouts, Lesage explained they were given out to refugees showing up at the consulate to provide information about Canada's refugee programs "because individuals cannot apply directly for resettlement." When asked if she could explain what criteria a refugee must meet in order to be considered, she redirected me to CIC's website.

A copy of one of the printouts which is handed out by security guards to refugees who visit the Canadian consulate in Istanbul. Image courtesy of Citzenship and Immigration Canada

"Canada is a pain in the ass"

The scene of refugees being kicked to the curb in front of the Canadian visa office is all too common for Onur Akin, a former UN interpreter who now runs a travel agency next door to the Canadian visa office. He said the Canadian government has a well-known reputation for deterring refugees applying for asylum.

"The US is easy, Europe is easy, but Canada is a pain in the ass," he told VICE in between processing visa applications for clients. "Most of the cases are not accepted."

According to CIC the Canadian government has received a total of 5,706 applications for government assisted resettlement for Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis in Turkey since 2011. As of press time just 3,515 of those had been approved. But because neither the consulate, the embassy, nor the visa offices have been accepting applications directly from refugees it is impossible to know how many of them have actually attempted to begin the process of resettling in Canada. One woman working at the consulate told me there have been days when as many as 40 refugees showed up looking to apply. However, she didn't know the exact number as it was relayed to her by the security guards responsible for turning them away.

"These are people that all their looking for is to start their lives and live in safety, and wealthy countries like Canada are denying them the opportunity to do that," said Shea, a native of Kingston, Ont. "It's really embarrassing."

Yousuf Oman, along with his wife Zozan Ali and their daughter Sibel and son Siphen, have spent the last two years walking from refugee camp to refugee camp in the hopes of escaping the unlivable conditions in their native Syria. Photo by Cody Punter

"I don't have anything"

As federal political party leaders bicker over whether or not Canada should allow an additional 10,000 or 25,000 refugees, Turkey is currently offering shelter to nearly half of the four million Syrian refugees who have settled in countries sharing a border with Syria (Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey). In that time it has invested $7.6 billion to support the influx.

While cities like Istanbul provide a temporary shelter from the horrors of war, the realities of life as a Syrian refugee in a city of 17 million are extremely precarious. As Arab and Kurdish speakers in a country where native tongue is Turkish, refugees have a hard time finding jobs. Many are unable to afford somewhere to live and those who are not fortunate enough to have relatives that can help them are often relegated to sleeping on the streets. Aljamous has been lucky his parents gave him money to rent an apartment. However, the avid students said he has not been able to go to school since he arrived in Istanbul because the fees are too expensive.

"I was a good student, I had a good home but now it's gone. I don't have anything," he said over a cup of strong Turkish tea.

If Canada wants to live up to its humanitarian reputation and make a dent in the refugee crisis, it will have to look at increasing its quota for resettling refugees to somewhere in region of the 90,000, which has been put suggested by the Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN mission to Rwanda.

Two weeks after going to the consulate Aljamous' optimism has turned to despair. "I'm really upset, upset about everything," he told me over Facebook. After scouring the internet he thinks the quickest way for him to get to Canada would be to get privately sponsored. But he hasn't figured out how he can sign up his name so he can be considered for the program. Meanwhile he has emailed Canada's visa office, the Canadian embassy in Ankara, and the UNHCR, but as of press time he still hadn't had a response from any of them. To make matters worse Aljamous was running low on money and was in danger of getting kicked out of his apartment. Aljamous said he plans to keep pursuing his dream of one day owning a Canadian passport and practicing medicine, but with no one to show him the way all he can do is wait and hope for the best.

Follow Cody Punter on Twitter.

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