New report offers glimpse into lives of British Columbia’s Syrian refugees

December 14, 2016

By Sunny Dhillon, Globe and Mail |
Nearly one year after they arrived in British Columbia, a new report says three-quarters of government-assisted Syrian refugees are in a language class and most household heads who responded to a survey are actively looking for work – but those who are not yet in language training have endured lengthy waits and two-thirds of those surveyed said they regularly turn to the food bank.

The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. released a report Friday that examined the first year of Operation Syrian Refugee and offered a glimpse into the lives of those who settled in the province.

The federal Liberals last year vowed to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. The newly formed government missed its deadline by a couple of months, but ultimately met its goal. More than 35,000 Syrian refugees – including government-assisted, privately sponsored and blended refugees – have arrived in this country in total since November of last year.

The report said 2,100 government-assisted Syrian refugees had settled in B.C. as of late November. It said 424 privately sponsored and 326 blended Syrian refugees had arrived as of late August, when the most recent data for those two groups was made available.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society, said despite the challenges they have faced, the refugees have shown tremendous resiliency.

“I don’t think the public fully comprehends how life-changing an opportunity this is, for families to be able to leave the Middle East and seek a safe future for themselves and their children,” he said in an interview.

The report said 301 Syrian household heads – all of whom were government-assisted refugees and arrived in B.C. between early November, 2015, and the end of February, 2016 – participated in a telephone survey last month.

The report said 76 per cent of government-assisted refugees were in a language class, but those who were not had endured wait lists ranging from one month to 11 months.

It said 17 per cent of those who responded to the survey were working on a full- or part-time basis, and of those who were not, 64 per cent were actively looking.

The report went on to say 66 per cent of respondents used the food bank regularly, and 16 per cent had family members who were exhibiting signs of depression. It said mental-health supports and family reunification will be critical for the refugees moving forward.

The report said finances remain the primary concern for many Syrian refugees, particularly as they approach Month 13 in Canada. Mr. Friesen has said a family of three or more in B.C. could receive $350 less per month when it transitions from federal assistance to provincial assistance, because the federal program included supplements that the provincial program does not. A refugee group in Toronto has said some refugees there could also receive less money.

The B.C. and federal governments have said they are aware of the funding gap. The head of a Senate committee that this week released a report on Syrian refugees said the federal government should step in and match any funding shortfall.

Mr. Friesen said he was not surprised two-thirds of refugees surveyed had already turned to the food bank, given the level of income-assistance rates

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