Mohammed Zaqout’s perfect Canadian diction does nothing to give away the fact that he was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and knows full well what it means to live under siege and occupation.
In 2018, having graduated with a degree in business, Zaqout moved to the United States for a three-month internship, but doubted he would be able to stay in the country past that point. “I was the only family member working and supporting the family,” he said. “But it also felt like it might be a bit too hard to find a job and just get settled and be able to send money home.”
On a visit to Vancouver that year, Zaqout applied for refugee status in Canada. “It seemed to be one of the only options that I had.”
For many people from war-torn places, asylum status in a wealthy, stable country offers a ray of hope. In Canada, there are two very different paths to refugee status: a person can apply as a government-sponsored or privately sponsored refugee, or as a refugee claimant. A sponsored refugee, who has been identified by the UNHCR and processed before arriving receives housing and financial assistance from the government or from private sponsors. A refugee claimant must take care of themselves until they are processed and accepted — or rejected — as refugees, which can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year. Zaqout came to Canada and made a refugee claim after a few months.
Uprooting their lives in search of a safer home, most refugee claimants arrive in Canada with scant funds, facing a new landscape, strange people, an unfamiliar language and customs — and a ticking clock.
Vancouver turned out to be different from what Zaqout had imagined. He was surprised by the diversity of the population. And the climate was unexpectedly temperate, not dominated by cold and snow as he had envisioned. However, he did notice what he calls the “social cold,” and he felt intimidated and found it difficult to socialize at first.
Zaqout’s most vivid memory from his early days in Canada was encountering the Downtown Eastside, with its visible poverty and people living on the streets. He found it shocking. But as his refugee claim slowly ground through the process, the funds he’d brought with him depleted steadily. One day, he could no longer pay his rent.
He found himself living in a shelter on the Downtown Eastside.
‘They’re not equipped’
Zaqout’s story is unfortunately a familiar one for Jenny Moss, coordinator of the Multi-Agency Partnership, a coalition of refugee assistance organizations.
“One of the biggest issues we have here is the retraumatization that happens to refugee claimants when they go to B.C. shelters. And that's not to say that they’re any more special than anybody else who’s homeless, but just that they’re not equipped. They don’t know about the kinds of issues they’re going to face in the shelters.” Moss remembers a refugee claimant from Palestine who told her, “I’m used to guns and bombs. I know what to do when I have to react to that. But I’m not used to people shooting up drugs in front of me or having to chain my belongings to my body overnight so people don’t steal my stuff.” But unless a refugee agency connects with a claimant in time, Moss said, the most likely outcome is that they will end up in the city’s shelter system.
At the Canadian border, whether reached by land, sea, or air, a refugee claimant files a brief description of the circumstances that they feel should qualify them for refugee status. They must then put together documents to bolster that claim and attend refugee hearings where they present their case. This avenue is unavailable to most refugees arriving via the United States however, which is designated a safe third country under the Canada-US Safe Country Agreement.
Rezan Abdi (a pseudonym used out of safety concerns) arrived in Vancouver in 2015 from Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. She had faced death threats for reporting on violence against women and social justice issues in Kurdistan, where female genital mutilation and the murders of women who are perceived to have brought dishonour upon family are common practices.
“You don’t care about it in the beginning,” Abdi said of the threats, “but it just continues to make your life harder. So you don’t want to stay.” She decided to seek refuge in Canada.
For Abdi, one of the hardest parts of the process was providing documents to help strengthen her case in time to meet her immigration hearing deadline. Such deadlines, she said, are imposed without consideration that often a refugee’s home country lacks the infrastructure and resources to send documents. This slows down the process, and the waiting game often proves detrimental to the claimant’s mental health.
Abdi struggled to access social assistance and understand her rights. Having now spent six years in Canada, she argues that refugees like her should receive government help and information from the very beginning. Like Zaqout, she struggled to find a home in Vancouver, despite having fallen in love with the city.
For many refugee claimants, identity becomes an impediment to securing housing.
“There is a lack of trust in renting to refugee claimants,” explained Moss. “And part of that is overt or covert racism — frankly, a distrust of people who come without the regular documents.”
Refugee claimants are issued a special ID card that makes obvious their precarious status in the country. Even with an agency acting on their behalf, it is challenging to persuade landlords to give them a chance.
Hosts make it feel like home
Vancouver is consistently one of Canada’s most expensive cities to live and rent in, with a Mercer report for 2021 placing the city on top of the list. But the issue is compounded for refugee claimants because they are an unanticipated demographic, arriving outside of expected flows of immigration. Housing in Vancouver is already near capacity, and there is little funding from the provincial and federal governments to encourage the establishment of transitional housing that caters exclusively to refugee claimants.
What’s more, available housing primarily caters to individuals or nuclear families, which works against refugees who arrive with large families. Subsidised housing models and bigger housing units, which are often the only feasible options for claimants arriving with their families, are lacking. Yet housing is one of the first important steps of the resettlement process in a new country.
A handful of non-profit organizations, including Kinbrace and Journey Home in Vancouver and Inasmuch in Abbotsford, provide refugee claimants with transitional housing. Abdi, who moved into an Inasmuch communal housing unit, said being able to return to a safe home helped her as she navigated the refugee process.
Abdi’s fondest memory from her time at the Inasmuch house is being greeted by her host.
“The woman searched about us to find out what Kurdish people like. She discovered that Kurdish people can’t live without black tea and she went to buy tea to be served in a traditional light, clear cup and saucer, with a teapot. She put all of that on a tray in the room she prepared for us. That’s not forgettable for me and I’ll always appreciate that.”
The house also hosted refugee claimants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria. “We could share our stories, we could feel each other and understand that we are not alone,” Abdi said. “We could make a connection and help each other and talk to each other. We laughed, we cried.”
Living in a space shared with others required a considerable adjustment, so Abdi was delighted when she finally found her own home after a long, and often disheartening, process. She was relieved to finally have her own writing corner, her own laundry, and most importantly, a space to call her own where she could finally begin her life in Canada. Today she works as a freelance writer and lives in a quiet Vancouver suburb with her partner and young child.
At the East Vancouver home operated by Kinbrace, a giant trampoline takes up much of the front yard. It makes for a welcoming sight for the dozens of refugee claimants that arrive there every year.
Inside, the house has a lived-in look, with a warmly lit living room and common kitchen adjacent to a large dining table where weekly communal dinners are held. Children are clearly an important part of the mix. There is a box of Lego, a Disney clock, and crayon artwork taped to almost every free surface. When I visited, a shy 10-year-old, recently arrived from Syria with his family, was playing in the backyard.
Loren Balisky, one of the co-founders of Kinbrace, said that providing housing to refugees is essential to improving “the psychological space that they inhabit.” To transition to their new reality, Balisky said, they need the security of a home while they navigate Canada’s legal and economic systems. Kinbrace tries to provide a sense of community, so while each family gets their own unit (there are six), they share a dining room. Two Canadian host families also live in the house to help facilitate the integration process. It works so well that a key challenge for Kinbrace is the need to have residents move on once they’re more settled in the country, in order to make way for newer arrivals.
“We know that the longer people stay here, the more difficult it is to uproot one more time and shift to permanent housing. So there’s that tension,” Balisky said. Kinbrace houses anywhere from 30 to 40 people in a year, with most staying for three to five months. Balisky wishes for a more sustainable housing model for refugee claimants, one in which people could be moved into empty units across the city, allowing them to immediately start setting down roots and feeling like they belong. There’s a long way to go before that can happen. Still, both he and Moss see a shift in Vancouverites’ openness toward refugees.
“It’s a lot of hard work finding housing for people,” said Balisky, noting that refugees typically require rents that are lower than market rates. Still, of 15 housing transitions Kinbrace was involved in last year, about a third of them went to landlords who agreed to a reduced rent after learning more about the challenges of refugee resettlement.
“The appetite to hear refugee stories is enormous,” said Moss. As more and more organizations establish antiracism mandates and goals to address covert racism in the marketplace, she envisions a gradual shift towards more landlords being willing to rent to newly arrived claimants. In Canada, refugee claimants might be an “unplanned-for” population, but they’re not an unwelcome one, Moss added.
Finding home in Vancouver
Zaqout’s family back home is still in the dark about the weeks he spent in the city’s homeless shelters. Talking about the subject is difficult for him, and he prefers to focus on the few positives of his experience.
“There was something special about being in the shelter,” he said sarcastically. “You have to be out by 8 a.m. and never later than 11 p.m. It taught me discipline, it taught me that you could do three meals a day at a certain time.” He also praises institutions like the YMCA and Vancouver Public Library, where he could seek both social interaction and personal space.
The road to permanent housing was a tough one, requiring boundless patience.
“Some claimants do come with some money, but not that many, and their money disappears pretty quickly. And if they go on social assistance until they’re allowed to start working, the housing portion or the accommodation portion is very small,” said Zaqout. In his case, he ended up paying $610 per month for a room, while receiving a welfare payment of around $760.
“You could imagine how much money I would be left with. It wasn’t ideal.” Having to use most of his welfare money for rent meant cutting corners on his groceries and living expenses. At one point, he was unable to pay for a fresh set of photographs for his refugee claimant documents.
Today Zaqout works as part of Kinbrace’s housing support team. Since he lived in Vancouver’s shelter system for over a month, the accommodations at Kinbrace look luxurious to Zaqout. Through his job, he’s learned that community housing programs like the one developed by Kinbrace prioritize women and families due to security concerns, making single, male refugee claimants a lower priority. It’s another consequence of the limited housing available to refugee claimants, and the scarcity of organizations such as Kinbrace.
It took Zaqout a while to find a place he could call home, but now there are probably few Vancouverites who appreciate their housing as much as he does. The best part, he said, is “feeling safe, to have a door of your own to close, a roof over your head, without worrying if your phone gets stolen or if your important papers including passports or money are stolen. You don’t have to worry about leaving your stuff around. You could use the shower.”
Against all odds, Zaqout has found — and made — a home for himself in Vancouver.