B.C. refugee groups angered by suggestion food bank usage ‘cultural’

May 18, 2016

By Tara Carman and Jennifer Saltman, Vancouver Sun |

Local settlement groups are incensed by a suggestion by Canada’s immigration minister that Syrian refugees’ reliance on food banks is partly cultural, arguing that delayed and insufficient government support payments are in fact to blame.

Immigration Minister John McCallum acknowledged Wednesday that income assistance is not high, but suggested that was not the only reason Syrians are showing up at food banks.

“There may be a cultural element. You have to remember the refugees are coming from an entirely different world,” he told a Senate committee studying the Syrian refugee resettlement program. “Our world is very different than their world. Sometimes they have been living in refugee camps; maybe it’s the norm to be offered meals. I’m not overly concerned about this.”

Later Wednesday, McCallum met with reporters outside the House of Commons to take back those remarks.

“The remark I made about food banks I think was insensitive, so I regret having made that comment,” he said.

But the B.C. Muslim Association‘s Shawkat Hasan, who has been heavily involved in settling Syrian refugees throughout Metro Vancouver, said he was “very much disturbed” by the comments.

He said he is trying to speed up government support payments for several families who are unable to pay for rent, food or utilities, but is being told by officials that there is paperwork that must first be filed and reviewed. One on occasion, an application got lost, he said.

“They don’t have any income and they are waiting,” he said of the families, adding that mosques are stepping in to offer financial support to those waiting for government money. “I told (immigration officials), no, you need to give them now because they cannot wait another day without food.

“It’s not the culture.”

Muslim Food Bank director Mainu Ahmed also took issue with McCallum’s assertion that Syrian refugees are using food banks for cultural reasons and because they are used to receiving handouts.

“At some level, it’s almost insulting,” he said.

Ahmed said the reason they are seeing Syrian refugees using food banks is economics.

“The stipend that they get is effectively equivalent to what you’d get if you’re on income support,” he said. “It would be very difficult to actually make ends meet.”

Rent in the Lower Mainland is expensive, Syrian families tend to be large and include young children, and the initial cost of setting up a home — including stocking an empty pantry — is not taken into consideration when Syrian families are settled, Ahmed said.

“We’ve seen over the last six months a significant increase in the number of families that we are catering for, and the majority of them are newly arrived Syrian refugees, primarily government-assisted refugees.”

The Surrey Food Bank has also seen a marked increase in new registrations this year, close to a quarter of them Syrian refugees. Marilyn Herrmann, the food bank’s executive director, said that since Feb. 1, the food bank has served a total of 532 new families or households, 138 of which were Syrian families, representing 751 individuals.

She said the demand has put stress on the food bank’s resources.

“We’re not government funded. We receive no core government funding, so it’s not that I can speak to my funder and say I need more money,” she said. “We need to lean on all of our community for support, both food and money donations, so that puts extra stress on us.”

When asked what she thought of the immigration minister’s comments about why Syrians are using food banks, she said she wasn’t sure what he meant by “cultural element.” Many of the food bank’s customers are there for the same reasons — they lack affordable housing, money and daycare.

“We don’t question when someone comes to us why they come,” she said.

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