I arrived in Canada from Syria 10 years ago as an international student, and like every young dreamer, I was excited about my goals: perfect my English, land a starter job, move up quickly and find the love of my life — all in this land where I didn’t know a soul.
I kept my focus razor sharp on the future and didn’t dwell on the cushy life I had left behind in Syria. By 23, I had held a high-paying managerial position at Syriatel, one of Syria’s largest tech companies, and was living it up with lifelong friends in the scenic seaside town of Latakia.
In Toronto, my life was very different. My first job was the night shift at Naz’s Falafel House in the entertainment district. I cleaned washrooms and mopped floors after the weekend partygoers left. For months, I slept four hours a day, six days a week so that I could have enough time for school and for exploring the streets of the city I was quickly falling in love with.
Living in Toronto, I became well acquainted with the connotations of the words “immigrant” (hard luck, resourceful, ambitious) and “refugee” (resource-sucking, burdensome, maybe dangerous). I wanted to succeed on equal footing with those who made this country great.
After attaining a couple of postgraduate degrees in business, I landed a job as a financial adviser at a major bank in Toronto. Life in Canada was starting to look so good that I applied for permanent residency in 2010.
Then something happened, not in Canada but back home: a civil uprising for freedom and dignity in Syria. Like thousands of young activists across Syria, I published posts online expressing my support for the revolution.
Almost immediately, the threats came in. Many people from Latakia, my city, were directly related to the regime and became vehement regime supporters. The revolution was turning old friends into enemies.
One day I got a call and the voice on the other end said, “Don’t dare come back to Syria.” The threats escalated after I published a note on Facebook to build awareness about the oppression of the Assad regime.
In 2012, Immigration Canada rejected my application for permanent residency: I had come up two points short in its system. Voicing my opinions about the revolution robbed me of the option to return home. But Canada didn’t want me, either.
I felt like an abandoned child, stuck between a new home that didn’t think I was good enough to stay and an old home that no longer welcomed my return.
Out of options, I applied for political asylum in Canada and became a refugee claimant. I was among the small number of Syrians seeking refuge in Canada but not through the well-known private and government sponsorship programs, because we were already here.
I wasn’t one of the desperate refugees who made a perilous trip across the sea; I was already here. I didn’t get a handshake from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the airport or other public displays of support, nor did I have a sponsor group to support my resettlement. Instead, I faced court hearings, lawyer meetings and endless delays for many reasons, some reasonable and some frustratingly unreasonable.
Most of all, I never wanted to tell the people I met that I was a refugee. I didn’t want to say out loud that this country had not yet accepted me. I tried to justify hiding the truth about my status. I told myself if people know I’m a refugee, they may respond to me with sympathy. A refugee is a creature that needs help. Or they may respond to me with fear or hatred. A refugee is a security threat or an economic liability.
Instead, I began my lovesick devotion to proving myself worthy of being a Canadian. I wooed my new home, helping others, spearheading nonprofits. I co-founded organizations like Refugee Career Jumpstart Project and the Syrian-Canadian Foundation. I helped hundreds of newcomers learn English, find homes, get jobs. As a community leader, I promoted Canada’s refugees programs in meetings with government representatives from Sweden, Italy and the Middle East.
And for this I paid a dear price. I lost some people who were those closest to me. I recall the hundreds of conversations with loved ones in which all I could talk about was my work. I lived in the future and lost the beautiful moments that could have been.
And still, I hid my own refugee status, even from the people I had helped. Then one day, I came across a book, “Flight and Freedom,” that helped shift my perspective. The book tells 30 stories of Canadian refugees who overcame long odds and sometimes great cruelty in their journeys. The traits the book described — resilience, resourcefulness, courage — were the same ones I could see in the refugees I worked with, a group I didn’t want to admit I belonged to.
It saddened me how pathetic I had been in hiding my own status.
It has been 10 years since I set foot in this country and four since I requested refuge. After years of separation from my family, I watched my mom and sisters arrive at Toronto Pearson Airport through private sponsorship and receive their permanent residency papers, while I still have no idea what my future will hold.
But I should not have had to try so hard to prove my worth. Refugees should not have to give up so much in an attempt to be accepted. Society may proliferate the stigma of being a refugee, and allow all the ugly stereotypes to flourish. But I’m at fault for fearing the label and am working hard to prove it wrong.
I have done what I can to love this country, but I am no longer willing to neglect the other parts of my life that also deserve my love. And with equal conviction, I am no longer willing to hide from the truth. My name is Mustafa Alio, I am a refugee and I am proud.
Mustafa Alio is the co-founder of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project in Toronto.