They fled barrel bombs and chemical weapon attacks in war-torn Syria, but when they arrived in Canada to start rebuilding their shattered lives, they found themselves in a new battle with an invisible enemy.
The problems began soon after a dozen refugee families moved into a high-rise building in Hamilton, Ontario. Children would cry through the night; parents discovered they were covered swollen red bite marks.
When the culprit was identified, it kicked off a two-year legal battle, between the refugee families and an apartment rental company – ov
Activists say that the story highlights the difficulties many refugees face in the country, where navigating daily life and learning how to fight for your rights can be a challenge for “new Canadians”.
The incident has also cast a spotlight on Canada’s bedbug problem: infestations began nearly a decade ago across the country and show few signs of stopping. The province of Ontario has allocated more than $5m to combat infestations, but the tiny blood-sucking insects continue to spread.
Bedbugs are rare in Syria, but the apartment building where the families were resettled was “notorious” for its pest problems“They didn’t know what these pests were. Obviously, it was traumatic for them,” said Ali Naraghi, the lawyer representing the families.
When the refugees complained, extermination companies were brought in on numerous occasions, but when they were unable to eradicate the bedbugs, families started to break their leases and move out.
With the help of local advocacy organizations, the families took Diamond International and Melvin Apartments Inc to a tribunal, seeking a return of their deposits and compensation of $63,666 for furniture, bedding and clothing that had to be destroyed.
The rental agency slapped the families with a countersuit for unpaid rent, and in some cases refused to issue rental receipts – which are essential for refugee and other low-income residents apply for child tax credits.
Last week, the families and apartment company reached a settlement, the terms of which remain confidential.
“Our clients are happy to have reached a settlement with Melvin Apartments on terms that are satisfactory to both parties,” said Naraghi in a statement on behalf of the families, adding that a director at the housing company in Hamilton has “expressed his desire for the refugees to feel at home in Canada, and to feel that they have been treated fairly”.
Jenn McIntyre, director of Romero House, an organization what helps refugees in Toronto, said the episode illustrated the difficulties families face when they start rebuilding their lives in a new country.
“Advocating for yourself when you’re in a new culture with different cultural norms around self-advocacy can be really hard,” she said, adding that new residents can be held back by language difficulties, ignorance of local bureaucracy and a lack of paperwork
On a number of occasions, she has found that her clients are treated differently when one of her staff is present. “That shouldn’t be the case. You shouldn’t have to have a person who is Canadian and speaks English present in order to ensure someone has fair access to a system or institution.”
Refugee families in other parts of Canada, including Halifax and Burnaby, have complained of bedbugs in their new homes, and according to pest control experts, Hamilton doesn’t even rank among the top 10 Canadian cities