A Syrian refugee’s advice for Ukrainian newcomers
How Azizah Lotfi came to Canada and why she wants to give help others coming to the country
When Azizah Lotfi moved to Abbotsford in 2017, she dreamed of giving back to Canada.
Born in Syria, Lotfi grew up in Jordan and immigrated to Canada five years ago.
Two years ago, Lotfi started volunteering at Archway Community Services in Abbotsford. She is now a Canadian citizen and employed as a settlement worker helping other newcomers to Canada. She also is set to graduate from the University of Fraser Valley with a degree in social work later this year. Her father has opened a halal meat and grocery store, AL Noor, and her brother has become a licensed plumber.
Today, Lotfi’s work focuses on helping those fleeing the war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of July, Canada has received over 360,000 temporary resident visa applications for Ukrainian residents. The Current spoke with Lotfi about her path to Canada, what makes the Fraser Valley an ideal landing spot, and her advice for a new group of refugees.
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FVC: Can you tell me how you came to Canada and settled in the Fraser Valley in particular?
Azizah Lotfi: “I came to Canada in 2017 under government sponsorship with my family, when you partner with a government and they choose refugees from outside Canada. I came directly to Abbotsford, actually to my [current] home. I’ve been in the same house since 2017.”
FVC: How long were you in Syria before you came to Canada?
AL: “My dad moved from Syria in 1992, so we had been in Jordan for our whole life. But after Syrian[s] moved to Jordan after the war, Jordan started to treat us as newcomers. I don’t know why, but because we don’t have this citizenship, we don’t have permanent residence or anything from Jordan, so they treated us as a new people. It was challenging actually, there’s a lot of racism. I had a very low opportunity to go to university because it was very, very expensive.”
FVC: What has it been like living in the Fraser Valley?
AL: “It’s kind of different. It is different from back home. Culture is different, food different. Language was a challenge. But it’s beautiful.”
FVC: Was there a bit of an adjustment to get settled here?
AL: “Yeah, we attended LINC English classes. So they helped with understanding, and they have good explanations on how the culture here works. It was very helpful.”
FVC: How did you get involved with Archway to get to the position you’re in now?
AL: “After two years, I volunteered with them. I volunteered with a youth program. After volunteering, they called me and they offered me a job with the youth program. From September to December, I worked with them in the youth program, and I did my [UFV] practicum with them as will. I did the practicum in the settlement team. One of the summer workers left in December and they asked me to take the position part-time. I took it part-time until April, when they moved me to full-time.”
FVC: What inspired you to get involved and really take that role?
AL: “I wanted it. It was a dream from the beginning. I’m a studying social worker at university, so I really wanted to help people as I got helped before, make differences in the community. You know, we came here to contribute and give back to what Canada gave us. Like bringing us here, it was a very helpful step in our life and our future.”
FVC: Can you explain specifically what kind of work you do with families and individuals?
AL: “So when the family arrives, we have to issue them a SIN number. So I go with them to Service Canada, I help them with the SIN number, I apply for a health card. If they need a driving license, I help them with booking an appointment and explaining how the things work. If they want to go to the doctor, we help them find a family doctor, we pretty much refer them to the right place. We go with them to those places, we translate, we interpret.”
FVC: Is it families from all across the world?
AL: In the settlement department, we have a Punjabi-speaking settlement worker. I mainly work with Arab people, but I have some English-speaking newcomers that come to me as well. We have a speciality social worker for Ukrainians at the moment.
FVC: You’re going to be graduating pretty soon. What are your goals or hopes going forward? Do you hope to continue this kind of work?
AL: Yes. I’m thinking something to do with the government. Like we are a non-profit organization, I want to be with government organizations such as [Immigrations, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], maybe, we’ll see. Or Service Canada. But I’m pretty comfortable here. It’s a really good environment
FVC: Why is the Fraser Valley a good environment for people to come into?
AL: “It’s really good weather. And here you can see multicultural society. I think there’s nice people here.”
FVC: What advice would you have for others, like Ukrainians, coming to Canada?
AL: “Mainly would be to learn the language. We have really good resources here, learning the language will open a lot of doors. That’s what happened to me. I did not have a lot of chances in the beginning because I had a language barrier. But then I had the chance to study more in university, I had a chance to get employment and actually meet other people. So just living in a neighbourhood without anyone you speak the same language with will be difficult, but if you speak English you can communicate with others…
“You have a lot of opportunities here. That’s what I saw, what others experienced, we have a lot of opportunities we didn’t get back home.”