Iraqi Refugees Build New Home in Canada
In 1991, when Safa Safo first settled in Rexdale, he could count all the other Iraqi families in the neighbourhood on one hand. Today, when he visits his old community along Finch Ave. W., between Kipling Ave. and Weston Rd., it is hard not to bump into another Iraqi speaking in his familiar Arabic. "It used to be a European neighbourhood, not very multicultural," said Safo, 49, a self-employed truck driver, who moved to Bolton in 1998. "Now, we have at least four Iraqi food stores, churches and other small businesses around. Many stores have employees who can speak Arabic." Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a growing number of Iraqi refugees, most of them Christians, have resettled in Canada, many of them in north Toronto, Richmond Hill, Mississauga, Woodbridge, Brampton and Windsor. Most are here through government and private sponsorships by faith groups and individual families, who are financially responsible for the new arrivals for up to a year. "There isn't a day goes by without one or two people contacting us inquiring about the sponsorship program," said Father Niaz Toma of the Holy Family Chaldean Church, which sponsored 200 Iraqi families to Canada in the last five years. While the Finch Ave. W. corridor, full of rental apartments, isn't quite Little Baghdad yet, it is where most recent Iraqi arrivals find their footing. Ottawa is committed to resettle some 15,000 Iraqi refugees to Canada by 2013. According to the 2006 census, Toronto was home to 35,000 Iraqis -- including 16,000 ethnic Armenians and 5,000 Assyrian minorities -- up from 10,000 in 2001. Peter Sami, a musician from Ninawa in Northern Iraq, his wife and sister arrived in Canada five months ago, after four years of exile in Jordan. Sami, who was sponsored by a relative, lives in Mississauga but is drawn to the Rexdale neighbourhood for its familiar comfort. "It feels like home here," said Sami on a recent afternoon, relishing a Sharwama (sandwich-like wrap) meal at the Ninawa Food Market on Finch, near Gracedale Blvd. The familiar menu of Middle Eastern delicacies and the welcoming embrace of store owner Waroshan Ohaniss make the long trek worthwhile, said Sami. In their poetic Arabic, Sami and Ohaniss, total strangers, chatted like old friends. While Sami vented frustration over his job search and the challenge of a new language, Ohaniss kindly offered encouragement with his own story as an Iraqi refugee some 18 years ago. Ohaniss, sponsored here by a Canadian church, settled in Stratford and was the only Arabic family in the community before moving to Rexdale this July. "I used to travel two times a month to visit my friends here, now I can see them all the time," said Ohaniss, a father of six, who has sponsored four Iraqi refugee families to Canada. "We escaped war and are all looking for peace," the former electrician said. "I'm happy Canada has opened its doors to Iraqi refugees." But the new arrivals need more than just spices, food products or the numerous free Iraqi newspapers displayed in Ohaniss' store. "Many of them face language barrier, unemployment and financial hardship," said Rabea Allos, whose Al-Salam Club, an Iraqi social club, has quadrupled its membership to about 130 families since it was incorporated in the 1990s. Some may also require extra help healing their wounds from the war, he added. But Iraqis are well-educated, hard workers and eager to be contributing Canadians, said Haroot Sepan, who was sponsored to Canada by his brother Aziz and now helps run the family's seven food stores, flower shop and an import-export company. The Sepans have sponsored more than 100 Iraqi refugee families, of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds, to Canada. "We are happy that we're able to help others," said Sepan, who just opened the 3,000-sq. ft. AVO Iraqi Supermarket at Finch and Albion Rd. last year.