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Crucial juncture

A year after arriving in Canada, Syrian refugees will see long-standing financial help dry up in 2017

Syrian refugees in Canada face a critical juncture in 2017

A year ago, Ziad Aldandan was in Lebanon, where he’d brought his wife and four kids, to escape the civil war tearing through their hometown in Syria. He was making a living by driving a bobcat and painting houses around the city of Zahla. The family had a place to live, but they couldn’t afford to send their older children to school, forcing Aldandan’s teenage son to work alongside him.

Then they moved to Canada. And now, nearly a year in, the family is nestled in a four-bedroom house in Fredericton. All of their children are in school, and the couple is getting closer to being able to communicate fully in English.

But while Aldandan’s circumstances have changed drastically this year, his family is now reaching a critical juncture. Like other newcomers who arrived in the early stages of Canada’s they are entering their 13th month of residing in Canada, and an end to a year-long period of financial assistance. 

As help from the federal government — in the case of Aldandan, who has been unable to find work, his family has been surviving on $1,345 a month from Ottawa — or a private sponsor, comes to a halt, a significant portion of these refugees, still mastering basic English, will turn to their provinces for support.

The story of Canada’s open embrace of 25,000 war weary Syrians has earned accolades around the world, with foreign governments looking to Canada as a potential model for their own refugee resettlement initiatives. But the journey has had its share of bumps. Holes in the system became quickly apparent, as reports emerged of refugees waiting for months at a time for housing while staying in crowded hotel rooms, struggling to enroll in language classes to learn English, and as a result, being unable to find work.

 

Well-wishers gather in the hope of greeting Syrian refugees arriving on the first government arranged flight at Toronto's Pearson Airport, on Dec. 10, 2015. Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Aside from work, refugees and advocates complained that the language barrier made it difficult to access much-needed health care services.

“There have been some health issues, and it’s difficult to deal with hospitals and doctors because of the language barrier,” said Larry Kennedy, a volunteer who was assigned to Aldandan’s family, and who has become a friend of the family.

Aldandan’s son Tariq injured an elbow in Lebanon and has trouble opening his arm fully for the past year.

“I generally go with them. We sometimes get a translator, but that’s difficult to arrange,” he said, explaining that waits are so long that by the time they’re seen by a doctor, the translator may have to leave.

Aside from the language difficulties, experts have also noted other barriers to access health services, especially mental health services, like a shortage of psychiatrists and mental health experts, and different cultural norms.

Dr. Meb Rashid, medical director at the Crossroads Clinic, also warned a Senate standing committee studying the Syrian refugee program for months, that “immediately after migration there is frequently a period of elation.”

“It may take months before mental health issues actually declare themselves. We need to be ready for this,” he said, adding that based on what’s known about refugee populations, 10 to 20 percent will need to feel comfortable enough to open up about their mental health challenges in the future.  

The federal government is tracking Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada, but it doesn’t have numbers yet of how many have found work.

While the amounts government-sponsored refugees will receive from the provincial social assistance programs going forward will be similar to what they got from the federal government, and they may not see much of a change in their circumstances, privately sponsored refugees, who haven’t found work but may have gotten used to a greater amount of funds and support, will now have to figure out how to manage on smaller budgets.

Ghader Bsmar, a privately sponsored refugee who escaped Syria after her sister was killed in a bomb explosion, had benefited from sponsors who had saved up enough to give her family roughly $3,000 a month for living expenses,

She arrived in Toronto last December with her husband and two young children — one with who’s leukemia now is in remission.

Now they will rely solely on her husband’s income from a Middle Eastern supermarket and a bakery, while she works towards a diploma in social services from George Brown College. She’s also been teaching Arabic as a volunteer, and hopes to soon do so for pay.

“I like everything. I like people. Government is very good. I see many people everywhere. If you need help, you can ask people. I don’t worry when I walk outside,” she said.

The federal government is tracking Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada, but it doesn’t have numbers yet of how many have found work.

But over the past decade, statistics show that 50 percent of privately-sponsored refugees and 10 percent of government-sponsored refugees had employment income within their first year.

According to a report from the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights on Syrian refugees, privately sponsored refugees generally come from a higher social and economic statuses, and 60 percent arrived with English language skills, as opposed to 10 percent of government sponsored refugees, who make up over 21,000 of total arrivals.

Sometimes, government sponsored refugees, referred to Canada by the UNRC because they were considered to be among the most vulnerable, are completely illiterate in even their own language.

“We asked the UN for vulnerable people, and we got them,” Immigration Minister John McCallum told the Senate committee. “We wanted them, so in a sense that’s good. The other side of the coin is that it might take more work to prepare people with that demographic profile for success.”

John McCallum, right, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, helps Syrian refugee Ramez with his glove at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Monday, February 29, 2016. Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Alex LeBlanc of the New Brunswick Multicultural Centre, an umbrella organization for settlement agencies, said New Brunswick had received over 1500 Syrian refugees by the end of November — the highest per capita number of any province.

LeBlanc said Syrian refugees are advancing more quickly than other groups because of how connected they are to volunteer groups, who help them with everything from medical visits to getting their driver’s licenses.  

According to the data he’s collected, less than 20 percent of the newcomers have worked since they’ve arrived, but “all the adults are working hard at developing language,” he said.

LeBlanc says a greater focus needs to be placed on helping Syrian youth adjust to life in Canada. Over 20,000 Syrian refugees who have been resettled are under the age of 18.

“If we don’t provide the right support system for youth that arrive between 15 and 29, they could be struggling to connect with the labour market and create a career path,” he said.  

While Bsmar’s young children have quickly found their footing, many parents of teenagers are concerned about how their kids are coping.

Aldandan’s older children were out of school for about three years, while the family lived in Lebanon, and he’s worried they won’t be able to catch up. In New Brunswick, high school students must be under the age of 21, which presents a potential problem for his 19-year-old son Tariq, who may not be able to get all the required credits in time.

“In Lebanon, Tariq worked with his father in various capacities, driving the bobcat, painting,” said Kennedy, the family friend. “When he gets here and it’s a different language, different numbers, and he hasn’t been in school, it’s difficult. Having said that, he also got a job two or three hours a week, twice a week, after school. He works in a restaurant. We’re very proud of him.”

“It may take months before mental health issues actually declare themselves. We need to be ready for this.”

Aside from issues with schooling, refugee youth may also be coping with past trauma, as well as survivors’ guilt.

“They struggle to cope with the traumas of war and they are faced with a steep learning curve to adapt to a new culture,” said the Senate report. “Some youth never connect with Canadian society.”

A submission to the Committee from the Boys and Girls Club notes immigrant youth also face the same issues as other Canadian youth, like feelings of isolation and loneliness, mental health challenges, and bullying, but they have with fewer resources to help them. It and urged the government to “reach out to these youth before the local gangs do – who literally hang outside the housing families are placed in.”

And for many families, any peace of mind won’t come until the civil war is over or until they get their family members out.

The government plans to speed up the spousal reunification process, but experts want it to do the same for other relatives, and to broaden the focus from nuclear families, which doesn’t take into account that families are larger in many cultures, and that relationships are intensified during times of war.  

Cover: Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

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