The story of Sandra and Ayman F* is full of surprises. The first one came when they introduced themselves and Ayman casually mentioned he had just spayed their pet cat, Nuci.
Ayman was not joking - he had literally just spayed the cat himself! His process in becoming a certified veterinarian in Canada was a key part of the family’s journey from the life-threatening war in Syria to building a home for themselves in Canada.
In 2011, Sandra and Ayman were living in Homs, Syria, flourishing in their respective careers - Sandra as a software engineer, and Ayman as a veterinarian. Their son, Joseph, was four years old and loving school. Then the peaceful protests and discontent that had been simmering in Syria broke out into civil war, and the lives Sandra and Ayman had worked so hard to build crumbled around them. “It’s honestly a miracle I am alive today,” recalls Ayman. “There are so many times that I should have died.”
Sandra and Ayman’s family moved many times within Syria as the armed conflict escalated and spread. They eventually fled to Lebanon in 2013 as refugees where they lived for two and a half years. They were fortunate to find work in their fields in Lebanon, but they worked for minimum wages and the cost of living was high. During this time, they were desperately applying for resettlement abroad. They finally received word that Ayman’s sister’s family and his parents, who had immigrated to Canada in 2008, had assembled a sponsorship group through MCC to resettle Sandra, Ayman, and Joseph to Oakville, Ontario. It was an answer to prayer.
"We felt out of control for so long, we wanted to start taking our lives back into our own hands."
- Ayman F.
“By the time we came to Canada [in May 2015], we were already exhausted - mentally, physically, everything,” recalls Sandra. Despite this, Sandra and Ayman were determined to get to work rebuilding their lives. “We know how much our sponsorship group loved us, but we needed to be able to support ourselves,” says Ayman. "We felt out of control for so long, we wanted to start taking our lives back into our own hands."
Though they came to Canada with only $200 in their pockets, Ayman and Sandra refused any of the funds raised for them by the sponsorship group, even though this could have supported them for a full year. Within four weeks of arriving in Canada, Sandra had secured a job as a software developer for a local company in Burlington. Ayman’s road to professional and personal fulfillment was longer and more challenging.
“I didn’t want to change careers; I didn’t want to waste all of my knowledge and experience,” says Ayman. But the road to earning a Canadian veterinary certification is long and difficult. “For Canadians, it is an eight-year process to become a veterinarian from start to finish,” says Ayman. “There were many people who advised against it, who said it was a bad idea to try and be a vet in Canada because it’s such a difficult process. Plus, I had no English - zero!” But both Ayman and Sandra felt they would not feel at home until Ayman could once again work in the profession he was passionate about.
"We had spent the last five, six years moving around like chess pieces from place to place."
- Sandra F.
For the first year, Ayman studied English with a single-minded determination. When he wasn’t studying, he worked odd jobs that did not rely on English - first as a KFC delivery driver, then at a pizza factory, and later as a school bus driver. Sandra was working full time and keeping the household running. At the same time, they were looking at another ambitious goal: home ownership.
“We had spent the last five, six years moving around like chess pieces from place to place,” recalls Sandra. “We wanted a home for Joseph. We wanted our son to be in a neighbourhood where he can grow up and make friends he can go to high school with.” Exactly one year after arriving in Canada as refugees, Sandra and Ayman bought a house. “It was one of the craziest things we did,” laughs Sandra. “Buying a home on a single income while Ayman was still in school was maybe not the most logical thing to do, but we did it because we felt so strongly that we needed a home for Joseph.”
In 2018 after years of hard work, Ayman passed the Canadian Academic English Exam (CAEL). In early 2020, he wrote the last of his veterinary exams, the North American Veterinary Board Examination (NAVLE), a notoriously difficult, eight-hour exam. In June of 2020, he received notification that he had passed this exam on his first try, making him a certified veterinarian in Canada at last.
"It gives me joy to say I accomplished something, and that I made my family proud."
- Ayman F.
“We got our life back,” says Sandra with a smile.
“It gives me joy to say I accomplished something, and that I made my son proud,” says Ayman. “I made my family proud.” He is eternally grateful for the steadfast support of Sandra, without whom these lofty goals would not have been possible. “Sandra was taking care of almost everything, especially at the beginning when I was learning English.”
Today, the home they bought and the careers they reclaimed are the foundation for the stable and fulfilling life they have longed to give their son Joseph. “Today, he has his best friends who are all around him,” says Sandra. “They love him. They all want to go to the same high school with him.”
“We have been through a lot together,” reflects Ayman. “The highlight of our life is that we are a strong family together.”
*Last name withheld for privacy reasons.
Though travel restrictions and processing of cases for refugees overseas has been limited since March 2020, the need for sponsorship remains strong. This year, over 100 CGs have expressed interest for the sponsorship of 622 refugees and MCC is currently busy giving orientations to prepare CGs for the process of sponsorship.
“Refugees don’t choose to come to Canada but are compelled to seek Canada’s protection since returning to their country is impossible for most,” says MCC Ontario’s Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator, Moses Moini. “Through the resettlement program, refugees are provided with an opportunity to begin a new life in a new land; it’s an opportunity many don’t take for granted and embrace wholeheartedly as Canada becomes their permanent home.”