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Syrian refugees take citizenship oath on fifth anniversary of first arrivals


OTTAWA — A group of Syrian refugees took the Canadian citizenship oath in an online ceremony Thursday, the fifth anniversary of when the first plane carrying Syrian refugees arrived in Canada as part of the Liberal government's promise to resettle tens of thousands.

Ibrahim Nafash, who was one of 29 Syrian refugees who participated, said he was happy to take the oath after he and his family waited more than a year.

He said he submitted his citizenship application, along with those for his immediate family, in February 2019. They passed the exam that October, but his oath-taking was delayed until now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We asked (the Immigration Department) when we will take the oath, and we were told we have to wait because of the COVID-19," he said in an interview, adding they were contacted recently to take part in the online ceremony. 

Nafash, 48, said he came to Canada with his wife and two sons from Syria via Lebanon in December 2015.

Since then, he has been working as a chef for a Middle Eastern food supplier in Montreal after learning French and attending culinary school. His wife worked at a real estate company before she lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said his family received all the support it needed from the Syrian community in Montreal and from the government to start a new life here.

"Everyone has been supportive and kind," he said. "People stood with me and helped me find a job quickly after arriving."

When asked about the long delay in Nafash's case, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday that the pandemic has posed some new challenges.

"We want to welcome him and everybody else as quickly as possible," Mendicino said in an interview.

The minister said nearly 73,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada since 2015.

He said the 29 Syrian refugees who took the citizenship oath Thursday are among over 43,000 new citizens to have participated in online citizenship ceremonies since April. 

But government data shows that the numbers of new Canadian citizens have fallen during the first few months of the pandemic. 

More than 45,000 people took the oath of citizenship between March and June this year compared to more than 200,000 during the same period last year and 175,000 the year before.

The number of Syrian newcomers who became citizens also decreased between March and June — to 727 compared to 3,974 in the same period last year and 2,274 the year before.

"I'm very optimistic about our ability to continue to meet a high service standard when it comes to citizenship ceremonies," Mendicino said.

The Immigration Department has suspended citizenship exams since the pandemic began, creating a backlog, but it said recently it will launch a pilot project to begin holding exams online for about 5,000 applicants who mostly filed before the pandemic.

"This is a perfect example of how we have adapted and evolved to become even more efficient despite the very significant disruption that has been caused by COVID-19," Mendicino said.

"My hope is that following this pilot that we will be able to scale it up significantly and become even more efficient in the future," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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