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Canada’s New Syrians and the Complex Search for “Home”

Mike Niconchuk

Yeah, come, I’m at home.

I could hear Anas chuckle on the other end of the line. He corrected himself. “Well, I’m in the tent. You know what I mean.”

It was, at first, hard to distinguish Anas’s tent from the rest of the oranged, wind-whipped tents in Za’atri, even though I had been there countless times. That is, until the smell of kabseh reached me. I followed the cinnamoned salty trail to Anas’s tent. I walked in, greeted by Anas’ near-perfect smile and a giant tray of rice and chicken prepared lovingly by his neighbor “auntie”. As a single man living on his own in Za’atri, Anas was looked after—gastronomically, at least—by an older mother next door, who always made sure he was well fed, especially when he was having guests.

Welcome to my castle, isn’t it luxurious? Skylights and everything,” he said, as he flapped open a thin layer between the outer and inner walls of the tent. A cloud of dust visibly blew across the carpets and cushions. Perpetually sarcastic, yet without a trace of bitterness, Anas cleared space on the floor with his feet, kicking away shoes, cups, sheesha pipes, and playing cards to make room for lunch.

Ah! Take off your shoes. Just cause there’s dirt everywhere else doesn’t mean it’s allowed inside.” I took off my shoes, sat across from Anas and his childhood best friend Ra’ed, and dug my spoon deeply into another lunch at my friend’s home.

I slept so well last night. The breeze at night is great.” Anas added, rolling up his sleeve a bit more to accommodate the impending mess that is par for the course with kabseh.

Home. Tent. But, nonetheless home. I heard this stutter a thousand times over three years working in Za’atri Refugee Camp. In the earlier days of the camp it was more common, but as days turned into months, which turned into years, “yeah, I’m home” lost its follow up. Tent, caravan, tin shack—slowly, these spaces became home, in word and in mind.

A concept as flexible and resilient as every Syrian refugee I have met, home is a notion so deeply tied to humans’ mental health and wellbeing. “Make yourself at home,”mi casa es su casa”, “Al-bayt baytak.” These common phrases, while perhaps used lightly with little conscious reflection, speak to the transcultural value we place on feeling at home.

Nearly every species makes a home, of some kind, for itself in the world. Nests high in the sky, holes deep underground, crevices in dark, wet caves—all of these spaces, some of which seem completely inhospitable to humans—provide homes of some kind or another for different species. We share our deep need for home with the rest of the animal kingdom.

Neuroanthropologist John Allen, in his recent work, Home, delves into the evolutionary history and cognitive importance of homes and habitat across species. While he doesn’t speak to the issue of forced displacement directly, his exploration into the development, meaning, and role of home as a secure base resonated deeply with my experiences in Za’atri Camp for the past three years, and in my subsequent experiences with Syrian refugees in Greece, Germany, the UK, and Canada. Home, for hundreds of Syrians I have met, has been uncertain and unstable for years, and most are acutely aware of the risks— relational, emotional, and psychological—associated with their homelessness. Allen writes:

“Home becomes a harder place to find, in a cognitive sense, when it is no longer a place to escape the stressors of the outside world, when no psychological reward can be derived from its quiet pleasures, or when the very existence of home in the context of the real world is no longer obvious.” (p. 217)

In Allen’s estimation, homelessness is a cognitive-emotional phenomenon far beyond our more day- to-day understanding of it as a social or political issue. As a species, home is a place of safety, of rest, where physiological, psychological, and emotional systems find stability and rejuvenation. Home represents homeostasis, across systems. As such, the traumas of home invasion, of eviction, and possibly even something like gentrification displacement, then, are more than just violations of space and rights—they can have deep impacts on our mental and physical health because they alter the sense of peace, security, and rest that our homes are designed to provide.

In the context of a refugee camp specifically—where the loss of home comingles with exposure to violence and profound stress—the consequences of forced homelessness further complicate the struggle to recreate home with unfamiliar and scarce physical and cognitive resources. Put differently, the need for a secure place of rest is not easily met when individuals’ psychological and physiological responses have been altered by stress and/or trauma (see here and here as examples).

Home. Tent. But still home. This simple slip of the tongue among refugees in Za’atri speaks volumes to both the automaticity of home-making among those displaced, and the challenge of finding home when so much has been lost. Indeed, the world has recognized the symptoms of homelessness in its many forms, forced displacement included— increased risk of health problems, loss of stable relationships, economic instability, and mental health problem comorbidity—and one could argue that our desire to help refugees is linked to our own understanding of both the right to home and the need for home.

Three years after my lunch in Anas’s home, I sat with Mahmoud and his young daughters in a basement apartment in a fading post-industrial city in Ontario, Canada. We were eating kabseh again, a symbol of home for many Syrians, who struggle a bit more, the further they go in search of home, to find the right ingredients for true kabseh.

We brought the spices from Za’atri [Camp in Jordan]. The good spices…you have to get them in that part of the world” Mahmoud said, as he revealed a clear plastic bag with dangerously low levels of the spice mix left at the bottom.

Canada has received over 30,000 “homeless” Syrians since November 2015, and unlike many countries, Canada has embedded within its resettlement framework expedited ways for Syrians to bring their extended families to Canada, specifically via their private sponsorship schemes and the federal government-sponsored Syrian Family Links Initiative. In 2016, after the first waves of government- assisted resettlement, the Syrian Family Links program was established to, according to Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, “ to make it easier for private sponsors to help unite Syrian refugees with their family members here in Canada.” So far, the program has had an “overwhelming” response, according to the website, and is quite backlogged trying to match requests with appropriate sponsors.

It is important to note, though, that Canada’s resettlement scheme isn’t entirely impermeable to criticism. For example, the system makes it nearly impossible for single, straight men over the age of 18 to be resettled, even through family reunification—a posture which raises questions about the restriction of choices and opportunities for that group, and which suggests that “home” may be even more difficult for young men to find, as they remain incredibly vulnerable to major risks like forced conscription, labor exploitation, recruitment to non-state armed groups, and fear-based smear campaigns in the public sphere. There are, however, some caveated exceptions to this exclusion (e.g. documented religious or other persecution) through non-government assisted private sponsorship—for example, through the Archdiocese of Toronto—as well as through combined university scholarship—permanent residency programs.

While I assume the Syrian Family Links program, or Canada’s resettlement scheme more broadly, was not intentionally designed with an appreciation of the cognitive and anthropological history of how humans establish a sense of home, the response to the program is testament to the importance of family relationships in building or maintaining a sense of home, and furthermore, should remind us that among war’s longest-range weapons is the breakdown of supportive relationships, which include nuclear families as well as larger networks of extended family and physical communities.

Allen elaborates specifically on the notion of relationships as a critical input of home, writing that “if these relationships are disrupted, for whatever reason, psychic homelessness may result” (p. 200). In other words, the continued fracture or disruption of supportive relationships can prevent an individual from feeling entirely at home or from reaping home’s homeostasis benefits, which include the normalization of stress hormones like cortisol. It thus should come as little surprise, from an evolutionary or psychological perspective, that a program directly facilitating refugees’ re-unification with loved ones received such an overwhelming response in a short time.

Resettlement, in some ways, simply accelerates the process of home-making, and aids refugees’ search for a place in which they can “escape the stressors of the outside world” as Allen describes. The safety and security of life in a new place, though, doesn’t guarantee that stress will diminish; in fact, it can even increase, in different ways.

At Mahmoud’s house in Canada, Bilal, a young Syrian man who also came recently from Jordan’s Za’atri Camp through the WUSC program, sighed as Mahmoud teased him about his now-noticeable grey hairs.

Yeah! I know!” Bilal shouted back at Mahmoud. “Count them. Hundreds! I’m old!” Bilal sighed again.

He looked to me: “You’d think they’re from learning language, moving three times in 6 months, or figuring out how this country works. No. These are from thinking. Constant thinking, and not about me, but about my family in Syria.”

In early September 2016, just as Bilal started his new life as a university student and permanent resident in Canada, his home village suffered a bombing campaign, forcing Bilal’s blind father and elderly mother to flee and pitch a tent in an open field 5km outside the village, as it is the only place they felt safe sleeping.

How can I rest, how can I do anything? I’m like a zombie, thinking about them all day, all night.” He breathed deeply, swallowing the tears that were beginning to form.


For Bilal, the process of forced displacement has been a torturous exercise in being homeless, and unfortunately, home becomes a “harder place to find” as stress and uncertainty grow, and as physical security alone is not enough to keep the mind and body at rest. While Canada, Germany, and other countries have made incredible accommodation for Syrian refugees and should be applauded for doing so, the provision of appropriate physical shelter is only a piece of the robust cognitive and biological puzzle that is home, and the puzzle takes time, resources, risk, and support to complete. Allen elaborates on the fragility of home, as I have seen it lived out among Canada’s Syrians:


“In a broad sense, Home is a very robust psychological phenomenon, but we see that it can be derailed at several different junctions. In the worst cases, this results in people who are both literally and cognitively homeless. For most people, there may be moments when home seems less than truly homely, and for them (us) it may be worth remembering in those time that home is more complex than it seems—a psychological house of cards that has been shaped by evolution, development, and culture, to be built and rebuilt.” (p. 217)


From Syria, to neighboring countries, to Germany, to Canada, individuals displaced by the war face a Sisyphean task of deconstructing and reconstructing home again and again, and the process of doing so requires physical, cognitive, and emotional resources which are in short or completely skewed supply. Moreover, the continued separation of families often pushes individuals towards return to the last place where everyone was together, even if exposed to life-threatening risk.


The search for and creation of home is automatic—an instinct that we share with the smallest of animals—insofar as the need for safety and security are automatic, core motivations of human behavior. At the same time, the creation and maintenance of “home,” and all that it entails for our emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing, is arduous and fragile. For those displaced by war in Syria, rebuilding home—and eventual return to the only place that was every truly home—is a priority that the world should support with more than just physical walls and shelter, but with meaningful mental health and relational support. Because, if home is truly where the heart is, we must take special care of the hearts and minds of those displaced, not just their bodies.

Feature image: Austin Lee on Unsplash

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