Refugees in 2015, Syrians now citizens in time for 2019 federal election

OTTAWA — Ahmad Almahmoud has dedicated time every day to follow the news, wanting to be an informed citizen for this fall's federal election.

He is one of 25,000 Syrian refugees that were resettled in Canada between the October 2015 federal election and February 2016. More Syrian refugees have landed in the country since then, with Statistics Canada numbers showing almost 60,000 being resettled as of this past February.

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Now, he is on the verge earning his citizenship as others have done so he can do something on Oct. 21 he wasn't able to do in Syria — vote in a free and fair election.

The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party has held power in Syria since 1963, including almost 20 years under Bashar al-Assad following three decades of his father's rule. The party has survived multiple uprisings, including the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 that led to the ongoing civil war.

Fleeing a war-torn country to exercise democracy in Canada has been a huge shift for Almahmoud and other Syrians.

"The democracy, the elections, the transfer of power peacefully and seamlessly — it's all new to us," Almahmoud said.

"You feel better when you see (these things)."

Alahmoud and his family fled Syria for neighbouring Jordan in 2012. There, he worked as a barber in the city of Mafraq — just south of the Syrian border — until the United Nations said Canada was willing to resettle him, his wife and their two children.

"Anyone would look for a better future for his kids," he said. "We travelled all the way to Canada looking for safety."

The family landed in Canada in February 2016.

A third child, a son, was born in 2017, meaning the toddler already has Canadian citizenship.

Soon after arriving, Alahmoud opened a barbershop that has since grown to include three other barbers, one of whom is also a Syrian newcomer.

Immediately bringing over 25,000 Syrian refugees was a key foreign policy promise the Liberals made in the last election, fueled by the horrifying image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi's lifeless body on a Turkish beach.

Almahmoud said the success of the refugee initiative was not due to one party, but because of the help and support Canadians provided for the waves of new arrivals.

In March, Almahmoud, 32, filed his citizenship application. While he awaits a date to write his citizenship test, he said he hopes he'll be able to take the oath in time to vote on Oct. 21.

"It's great (to become a Canadian citizen,)" Almahmoud said. "We are proud to be part of Canada."

To apply for citizenship, residents have to provide proof that they can speak and write in either English or French, that they have lived in Canada as a permanent resident for at least 1,095 days — equivalent to a period of three years — over the preceding five years, and that they filed taxes in at least three of the previous five years.

Federal figures show that 897 Syrian-born applicants became Canadian citizens during the first four months of 2019. They joined 1,597 Syrians who had become citizens in 2018, and 587 from 2017.

Research also suggests that more recent immigrants are getting out to the polls in federal votes. A 2016 Statistics Canada report noted that between the 2011 and 2015 elections, the gap in voting turnout narrowed between recent arrivals and those who have been in the country for at least 10 years.

Almahmoud said voting in the upcoming election will be an obligation if he is a Canadian citizen by then, and that he would cast his ballot for "the best person or who you think is the best."

To figure out how he will vote, Almahmoud said he keeps an eye on the television while he works in his barbershop, or listens to the news on the radio.

"I spend most of my time at my salon, so either the TV or the radio is on," he said.

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