Refugee family of nine struggles to find home

February 24, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

After three years of living in limbo in Jordan and then six weeks spent in a Surrey hotel, the Sua’Ifan family from Syria is ready for a permanent home. But a home in Metro Vancouver is proving elusive for a family of nine.

The father, Bassam Sua’Ifan, said through a translator that he has looked at many places since the family arrived in mid-January, but they are either too small or the landlords have balked at the prospect of hosting two parents and seven children.

On one occasion, he thought he had found an apartment, but settlement workers deemed it too small for the family.

“We can’t wait until we go to our house,” he said.

The least expensive place they have come across that was big enough to house the family rented for $2,000 per month, he said. This is a problem because the shelter allowance paid to them by the federal government, based on provincial welfare rates, is about $800 a month.

While Sua’Ifan is grateful this country opened its doors to his family (“We owe our lives to Canada,” he says), he worries that when the family finds a home, they will have to choose between buying food and paying rent.

Their situation is far from unique, said NDP MP Jenny Kwan, noting that she’s met Syrian families who have been living in temporary housing since late December, a far cry from the two weeks that immigration officials had planned for. “I’ve yet to meet a family that has been settled in two weeks that’s a government-assisted refugee,” she said.

In Ottawa, Immigration Minister John McCallum said that just over half (52 per cent) of the 23,098 refugees who arrived since Nov. 4 have been moved into permanent housing.

The number is lower in B.C., where 531 of the 1,207 government-assisted Syrian refugees — 44 per cent — have been moved into permanent homes, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

This is due to the lack of housing, especially larger units, that are affordable for families living on income assistance, be they refugees or longtime residents, Kwan said, calling on Ottawa to reinvest in subsidized housing.

She also pointed to a lack of “boots on the ground” to help newly arrived Syrians get to know their new communities and find housing. One agency, the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., gets most of the funding provided by Ottawa for refugee resettlement in the province, Kwan said. The Immigrant Services Society put out a call for offers of housing and support services, including volunteers, in November. They collected nearly 1,000 housing leads, said Friesen, but most are one-bedroom suites or rooms in houses. The Syrian families average six people.

In the meantime, the Sua’Ifan family continues their search for housing. They have two one-bedroom hotel suites, with kitchenettes where they do their cooking. For food, they receive $10 per day per person over the age of six ($60 total), and $5 per day for children under six ($15 total). The money comes from Ottawa.

When the family has visitors, daughters Mariana, 15, and Fatima, 13, put plates of bananas on the suite’s small coffee table and offer coffee, tea and juice.

Mohammad Nour, 4, hides behind his mother when he first sees a photographer’s camera. He is afraid it is concealing a weapon, his sisters explain through a translation app.

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