Refugees hit hard with a ‘harsh’ travel bill from feds

Spon­sors made Ma­ree fam­ily feel right at home, but they have a $9,000 tab from Ot­tawa

StarMetro Calgary - - CALGARY - NA­DINE YOUSIF thes­

ED­MON­TON—The Ma­ree fam­ily has come a long way in the last year. From a refugee camp in north­ern Iraq to a town­house in south-cen­tral Ed­mon­ton, the Syr­ian fam­ily was met with peo­ple and places they never en­vi­sioned.

“In our wildest dreams, we would’ve never thought we’d come to Canada,” said Jamshid, the 45-year-old fa­ther of the fam­ily of four.

The fam­ily lived for five years in an Er­bil refugee camp, often un­der treach­er­ous con­di­tions. Still, it was a wel­come re­lief after be­ing caught in the cross­fire of Daesh fight­ers, rebel groups, and the Kur­dish mil­i­tary in their eastern Syria home.

Their lives changed for­ever after a phone call from the United Na­tions, ask­ing the fam­ily if they were open to trav­el­ling abroad as refugees. After two and a half years, med­i­cal ex­ams and count­less in­ter­views, the Ma­rees fi­nally boarded the long flight from Er­bil to Is­tan­bul to Toronto, and fi­nally to Ed­mon­ton, where they landed in May.

They were greeted by their spon­sors — mem­bers of Ed­mon­ton’s Bon­nie Doon neigh­bour­hood, who were ex­cited by the ar­rival of their first spon­sored fam­ily. “Right away, they brought us home,” mother Shar­ifa re­called. Their rented home in Bon­nie Doon was equipped with ev­ery­thing they needed, from fur­ni­ture to ap­pli­ances, put to­gether by the com­mu­nity.

But the Ma­rees were also greeted with some­thing they weren’t ex­pect­ing; a $9,000 bill from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to cover the trans­porta­tion costs of their trip — in­clud­ing flights, an overnight stay in Toronto, and the med­i­cal ex­ams re­quired be­fore their ar­rival. It’s debt that all refugees must pay upon their ar­rival to Canada, but one that set­tle­ment work­ers and vol­un­teers say weighs heav­ily on the Ma­ree fam­ily and other new­com­ers flee­ing war.

“We’re bring­ing in vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, and to start off in debt is just adding to the stress,” said Suzanne Gross, who works at the Ed­mon­ton Men­non­ite Cen­tre for New­com­ers .

Canada is one of the only coun­tries ac­cept­ing refugees that en­forces this debt, Gross said, and up un­til April, it was the only coun­try in the world that charged in­ter­est on the bill. The debt is capped at $10,000, un­less a fam­ily has adult chil­dren, which would sub­ject them to higher fees, Gross said. The Ma­ree fam­ily came to Canada from a refugee camp in Iraq by way of blended spon­sor­ship, set­tling in Ed­mon­ton in May. CODIE MCLACHLAN/STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

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