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Yukon College welcomes Syrian refugee student

Tareef Jaamour found out he was moving to Whitehorse from Jordan five days before he had to leave. He left his job, said goodbye to his parents and his siblings and got on a plane bound for Paris.

Tareef Jaamour found out he was moving to Whitehorse from Jordan five days before he had to leave.

He left his job, said goodbye to his parents and his siblings and got on a plane bound for Paris. Before leaving, he signed a form promising never to return to Jordan on his Syrian passport.

He won’t see his family again for several years — not until he becomes a Canadian citizen and can travel back to Jordan as a Canadian.

“It was hard,” said the soft-spoken 24-year-old. “It was very hard, actually, because it’s not like I’m travelling to somewhere close to Jordan. I’m travelling to another continent, to another place, to the farthest north in the world, like to the North Pole.”

Jaamour arrived in Whitehorse on Aug. 23, and plans to take a one-year business administration program at Yukon College starting next week. He is the first student hosted by the college through the World University Service Canada (WUSC) student refugee program, which works with the United Nations Refugee Agency to place students in Canadian universities and colleges. The students receive permanent resident status upon arrival.

Though it was hard to leave his family, he’s liking his new home, he said. So far, he’s found people in Whitehorse to be friendly and welcoming.

“I like the attitudes of people here,” he said. “I like the place in general — everyone is helpful. If you need something, you can just ask anyone.”

That said, the coming winter is a cause for concern.

“The lowest temperature I’ve ever experienced back home is like minus five, minus six,” he said. “And this minus 30 or 40 thing, it’s going to need some getting used to, you know?”

Jaamour’s story is different from that of the millions of Syrians driven out of their home country by the ongoing civil war.

He was not born in Syria — in fact, he’s never lived there.

His father was forced to leave Syria back in the 1980s, during an uprising in his city, Hama. He fled to Dubai, where Jaamour was born, and later moved to Jordan.

There, the family lived and worked legally in asylum for nearly 20 years. Jaamour’s father is a doctor, and his mother works as a teacher.

But they were never granted Jordanian citizenship. “In Jordan, it’s not something you get, even if you stay like 100 years,” Jaamour said. “Not ever. If you’re a refugee in Jordan, you stay a refugee in Jordan.”

Everything changed for his family when refugees began to flood across the border from Syria after the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

Today, Jordan hosts over 650,000 Syrian refugees, equivalent to about 10 per cent of its population. Until recently, it has refused to issue work permits to the refugees, fearful that they will take jobs from Jordanians. Though Jordan announced it would start issuing work permits to some refugees earlier this year, Jaamour said his family was hit hard by the sudden change in attitude toward Syrian workers.

His father, for instance, is now unable to renew the licence for his medical clinic.

“And in the association of doctors in Jordan, he also can’t renew his partnership, his membership,” he said.

“Actually everything changed. Before the conflict, I had a driver’s licence in Jordan. After that, I can’t renew it. You can’t renew any document you have, any Jordanian document, it’s not valid.”

Shortly before he left for Canada, his mother’s school was inspected by the Jordanian labour ministry, and she and the other Syrian teachers were told to leave.

“They all had to go home,” he said. “Just like that. That day.”

When he left, she was trying to work out an exemption, since she’s lived in Jordan for such a long time. He doesn’t know whether she’s succeeded.

Jaamour has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and has worked for the last several months as an engineer at a construction site in Jordan. But he didn’t have a permit — he only got the job because his boss was a close friend and promised not to blow his cover.

At work, Jaamour said, he would speak with a Jordanian accent, instead of the Syrian accent he used at home, and hoped that no one would catch on.

“You just live under the threat that I’m going to lose my job at any moment,” he said.

“In general, you can’t have a future in the neighbouring countries of Syria for you as a Syrian.”

Jaamour discovered the WUSC program online more than a year ago, and decided it would be a good way to get out of Jordan and build a life elsewhere. He completed exams and was accepted by the program last September, but still had to go through the immigration process with the Canadian embassy in Jordan. He finally got the call at work earlier this month, telling him he’d be moving to Whitehorse in five days.

His parents were sad, he said, but they also encouraged him to go.

“My dad would never stand in the face of my future,” he said. “He would just say ‘Go, son, find yourself. You have no future here in the Middle East, so you can look for that elsewhere.’ So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Matt Landry, vice-president of Yukon College’s student union, said the Syrian refugee crisis spurred the college to look into the WUSC progam last year and apply to host a student.

“It felt not like something that we should do, it felt like something that we really had to do,” he said.

The college has fundraised $20,000 since last November, including a $5,000 donation from the student union. That money will cover all of Jaamour’s expenses for his first year in Whitehorse.

Landry said he’s already shown Jaamour around town and has helped him get his health card, SIN number and a bank account. And this weekend, he plans to take him camping.

“He’s very excited to immerse himself into Canada,” he said. “He wants to play hockey. He wants to do everything. We’re going to show him a good time here.”

And Jaamour said he’s committed to staying in Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen.

“I’ve been a foreigner all my life. When I came here to Canada and I got the confirmation of my permanent residence, this was the first time I get official documents that prove that I’m a resident of one place,” he said. “I used to be in Dubai. We were foreigners. We went to Jordan. We were foreigners.”

When he was applying to come to Canada, he said, an official in the Canadian embassy asked him a question: Where did his loyalty lie? To Jordan, to Syria, or to the United Arab Emirates?

He didn’t know how to answer.

“I came here (to Jordan) as a foreigner. And I can’t start a life in Syria from scratch, you know?” he said. “So here I am. So I guess my loyalty will be to Canada after all. Because it’s the first place that recognized me as a resident.”

Contact Maura Forrest at