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
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