Syrian refugees’ new lives in Canada are anything but easy

June 17, 2016

By Tamara Khandaker, Vice News |

Amer Alhendawi, his wife and five kids live in a bug-infested two-bedroom apartment in Surrey, British Columbia, making ends meet on about $1,200 of social assistance, with the help of food banks and child tax benefits. While no longer haunted by the threat of his home and family being torn apart by war, Alhendawi is kept up at night by the thousands of dollars it cost to bring them over here, which he now has to repay the government. Alhendawi doesn’t speak a word of English, and after 13 months in Canada, he’s been unable to find work. And his story isn’t unique.

“Every time I go, they say there is no chance and to come back in two to three months,” said Alhendawi, speaking through an interpreter to a parliamentary committee studying the Syrian refugee resettlement program. “I’m not working, but how can I work if I don’t know English to communicate?”

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally greeting the first planeload of refugees back in December, much has been made of his newly-elected Liberal government’s plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians — a goal that has not only been achieved, but as of the end of May, surpassed by over 2,500 people.

There’s been no lack of heartwarming stories of new beginnings, from a video of children experiencing tobogganing for the first time to the father and sons who were reunited after 10 years of separation. Most of the newcomers are government-sponsored meaning, unlike privately-sponsored immigrants, they rely on the government for financial support. Their first stop was a hotel or reception center.

“What you heard in the media, complaints against the government, that’s untrue. They are personal opinions … they do not represent us,” a lawyer named Mohamed Alchebly told CBC News in January after reports emerged that some refugees wanted to return to the Middle East because they’d been stuck for weeks in Toronto hotels. “It’s been excellent so far. We are comfortable, and we thank the government, the ministry and everybody.” According to the government, 99 percent of government-sponsored Syrians now have a permanent home.

But finding somewhere to live is just one challenge facing the newcomers. And months into a massive resettlement effort, the scale of which had not been seen in decades in Canada and which cost the government $319-million in the first four months, shortfalls in the Liberal government’s plan are becoming clear.

Stuck in overcrowded apartments, isolated by a severe language barrier, and unable to support themselves, the lives of many government-sponsored refugees stand in stark contrast to those joyful images of arrival. In the words of one settlement worker, the Trudeau government’s ambitious plan to showcase the compassionate side of Canada has been “wonderful” in intent, but “terrible” in execution.

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