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An incredible journey

Syrian-Canadian Mohammed Alsaleh gives public talks about the need to welcome refugees with open arms.

Mohammed Alsaleh lights up with sparkling vitality when discussing his newfound passion for public speaking and whirlwind schedule. Sipping a latte in an East Vancouver café, Alsaleh explains that on the day he delivered a recent TEDx talk — his second — he had just returned on a red-eye flight from London, where he gave the keynote speech at a forum organized by the International Observatory of Human Rights on the benefits of community sponsorship of Syrian refugees. “I lead a crazy life,” says Alsaleh, a member of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (523,000 members, $21 billion in assets).

Since arriving in British Columbia in November 2014 as one of the first few government-assisted refugees from Syria, the former medical student has learned English, studied for a health-care assistant diploma, held three jobs in the refugee-resettlement sector, volunteered for several human-rights groups, met the prime minister (twice) and served as an interpreter for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

A few days after this interview, Alsaleh, who turns 29 in June, went to Victoria for his new job as the BC trainer for the national Refugee Sponsorship Training Program to educate groups of private sponsors about upcoming policy changes. This past May, he spoke on a panel at the ABLE Financial Empowerment Conference about the unique challenges facing refugees and newcomers. On top of all this, he is busily preparing for the imminent arrival of his mother and five siblings, who he is privately sponsoring with a group of Canadians who read about his plight in a local newspaper and helped him to raise the requisite $60,000 — half through a GoFundMe crowd-sourcing campaign.

“Within 20 days, we were able to raise enough money to initiate the process,” he enthuses. “That’s when I realized that there is something called the Aladdin Factor – if you need help, ask for it. Especially if you are in a really amazing place like Canada, where people are so awesome and kind.”

Amazing as his life might now be, Alsaleh, more than anyone, would say that he is crazy lucky to be alive at all. In 2011, in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Alsaleh joined the anti-government protests and took to the streets in the city of Homs with his cell-phone camera. His videos of escalating conflict and brute military repression were secretly uploaded to the Hawk of Syria YouTube channel and picked up by CNNBBC and Al Jazeera, which broadcast the atrocities to millions of viewers around the world.

Two years later, Alsaleh’s dream of becoming an oncologist and one day finding a cure for cancer was violently derailed when Syrian state forces marched into his classroom. For 120 days, he was detained in dark, crowded, rat-infested cells, tortured relentlessly (at one point, handcuffed and hung from a ceiling for 72 hours), nearly dying from the beatings. Alsaleh was released only after his family had raised enough money to bribe officials by selling their home. Haunted by nightmares and in fear of being arrested again, he fled to neighbouring Lebanon, where he scraped by painting houses and washing cars. Then, one day, he received a call from the UN Refugee Agency. His claim had been accepted. “Your life can turn on a dime,” Alsaleh says with a bittersweet smile, reiterating the message from a recent speech. “Many people think refugees are just opportunists: poor, unemployed, dark-skinned people living in sad conditions in the Third World and lying to get asylum so they can partake in the riches of the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“Many people think refugees are just opportunists: poor, unemployed, dark-skinned people living in sad conditions in the third world and lying to get asylum so they can partake in the riches of the west. Nothing could be further form the truth.” – Mohammed Alsaleh

Of course, it takes more than 10 cents and the rub of a golden lamp to resettle in a new country. Having arrived in Canada as one of British Columbia’s very first Syrian refugees, Alsaleh knows first-hand that it takes a proverbial village — and sometimes the help of a values-based financial cooperative — to rehabilitate newcomers.

Thanks to a unique partnership with the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSof BC), there is a Vancity office inside the new Vancouver Welcome House Centre, for which the credit union provided a $1-million capital grant. Among other services and community impact programs, Vancity offers transitional bank accounts to new refugees. “They don’t have to travel to a bank, there is no minimum balance, no monthly fees or limited number of monthly transactions. All these financial literacy obstacles are removed. That’s why I’m still a member,” says Alsaleh.

One of the hardest challenges for refugees is finding employment without any Canadian experience. “Hire refugees or at least give them a chance to volunteer,” he implores of the corporate sector.

In a stroke of what Alsaleh calls “uniquely beautiful” fortune, he received his own first paid job at that same Vancity-sponsored Welcome Centre as a counsellor for ISSof BC. “It completed a full circle when I moved to the other side of the desk. It’s still a struggle. I live from one paycheque to the next because I have been supporting my family overseas. But the day I started working, I stopped being a refugee and became someone who could help others.” ◊