Please note: Because it’s 2015: A Conversation with the Prime Minister will air on Dec. 25. at 6:00 p.m. on Global Television (6:30 p.m. on Global BC).
VANCOUVER — Mohammed Alsaleh came to Canada as refugee, a year ago, after being imprisoned and tortured “relentlessly” in his home country of Syria.
The 26-year-old said he’s grateful to be here, starting a new life in Vancouver.
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“Two years ago I was in prison, yet I survived and here I am thanks to Canada,” he said Thursday, sharing his story before a crowded room.
But it was one person, in particular, he was there to tell that story — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
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Alsaleh may be settling in to life in Canada, even going for his first job interview, but he left everything behind — including his family.
In a question and answer session with the Prime Minister, Alsaleh wanted to know what the federal government could do to help refugees already in Canada, like himself, reunite with their families here.
“Many Syrian families have been separated and are so desperate to be reunited, he said, wearing a bright red T-shirt with the message “Reunite a Syrian family in Canada.”
“From what I have learned, government-assisted refugees are only resettled in Canada based only on referrals from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).”
The federal government is working with UNHCR to bring 10,000 refugees to Canada by the end of this year and a total of 25,000 by the end of February. The first flights carrying UNHCR-registered refugees from Lebanon and Jordan began arriving on Dec. 10. Turkey, where some two million Syrians have fled during the nearly five-year civil war in Syria, has a different process for referring refugees to host countries — something that is slowing down the process of resettling refugees out of that country, according to Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum.
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Alsaleh’s family fled Syria to Turkey in November. Even when the refugee referral process goes smoothly, it can still take between 18 to 24 months to be screened before being referred to a host country.
The only option for him to reunite with his family, he said, now appears to be private sponsorship, which requires a sponsor to demonstrate proof of being able to provide financial support.
“This is such a tremendously difficult process,” he told the prime minister, explaining he has resorted to starting a crowdfunding campaign to bring his mother, brother and two sisters to Canada.
“Mr. Prime Minister, without UNHCR referral, how can I get my family to Canada as a government-assisted refugee?”
Trudeau didn’t make any promises to Alsaleh specifically, but he said his government’s current refugee resettlement plan is “designed to kick-start the process,” adding the Liberal government is making up “for a little lost time” when it comes to accepting Syrian refugees.
“But in an ongoing basis there will be lots of different paths to ensure we’re bringing together families,” the prime minister said.