More than three-quarters of the Syrian refugees in B.C. have been able to access English classes, but just 17 per cent have been able to find work in the year since they arrived, according to a report released Friday.
The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. surveyed 300 Syrian refugee families by phone and 60 Syrian refugee youths last month, as the first anniversary of their arrival in Canada approaches. All of those interviewed were government-assisted refugees who arrived in Metro Vancouver between Nov. 4, 2015 and Feb. 28, 2016.
Eighty-five per cent of those surveyed expressed their gratitude to Canada and its people for taking them in.
Eslam Al Abbas, a pharmacy student from Syria who now lives in Burnaby, said she struggled to start her life over in Jordan after fleeing the war in Syria because the local Jordanians resented her presence there. For this reason, she especially appreciated the warm welcome offered byCanadians.
“My family were welcomed not as refugees but as new Canadians,” she said at an ISSofBC event to launch the report on Friday. “One year after, I feel I have a home. I have friends in my new community. I am learning English now in adult school and all my siblings are going to school also. I’m very grateful to Canada and to Canadians, because they opened their hearts and minds for us.”
Here’s what Syrian refugees had to say about their first year in B.C., by the numbers.
Nour Alhuda Al-Hariri, a recent refugee from Syria, speaks to reporters after the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. released a report on how local Syrian refugees are faring, one year after coming to Canada from their war-torn Middle East nation. Rafe Arnott / PNG
The vast majority (81 per cent) of Syrian refugees to B.C. arrived with either no English or beginner-level English. More than three quarters (76 per cent) said they were attending government-funded English classes. Of those that weren’t, half were on a waiting list ranging from a month to a year. The majority (55 per cent) were on a waiting list for an average period of four months.
This is a concern, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
“Syrians want to work, they want to learn the language and the wait list in British Columbia is the highest in Canada and so this is an area where the federal government needs to pay more attention and provide some additional strategic investments.”
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Fewer than one in five (17 per cent) were employed on either a full-time or a part-time basis, a figure Friesen said was remarkable because typically only 10 per cent of government-assisted refugees find work in their first year.
Those that were employed had mostly found work in manufacturing, construction and trades (59 per cent) or food, retail and hospitality (31 per cent). Close to two-thirds (64 per cent) of those who were not employed said they were actively looking for work.
Syrian refugees who responded to the survey identified a number of barriers to employment, which included:
• Transportation and the ability to get to a job site if it is not in an area serviced by public transit.
• Lack of Canadian work experience.
• Lack of English-language skills.
• Not knowing how to look for a job in Canada.
• Mental trauma from past experiences.
• Lack of child care.
Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) said their housing is comfortable for their family. Of those that said their housing was not comfortable, the most common reasons were the high cost of rent, the age and cleanliness of the house or that it was too small for the family. Forty-one per cent of Syrian families had six people or more. Most of these larger families live in three-bedroom units or larger.
Abdurahman Saeed, a recent refugee from Syria, takes part in Friday’s Immigrant Services Society of B.C. news conference. Rafe Arnott / PNG
Two-thirds of respondents reported excellent, very good or good physical health. On the mental health question, while most responded that they were happy (56 per cent) or very happy (14 per cent), one in three respondents reported feeling sad or depressed. Even those who reported being happy, however, were often deeply concerned about the well-being of family or friends still in danger in Syria or in refugee camps. Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) said they had immediate family overseas, including spouses, children, parents, siblings and grandparents, that they want to bring to Canada.
This family reunification theme emerged from the survey as one of the most pressing needs, authors Friesen and Kathy Sherrell wrote in the report.
“Parents spoke of the need to bring children to help support them as they aged, adult children of the need to bring adult siblings to provide support to their children/parents and adult children concerned about their parents.”
Syrian refugees have also needed much more extensive dental care than was anticipated, the report noted. Most dental care is not covered by the B.C. Medical Services Plan.
On income security:
Another main concern of Syrian refugees in B.C. is the looming shift from federal to provincial support, which occurs in the 13th month after arrival if a person has not found work. While federal support rates reflect provincial income assistance levels ― which have not changed in B.C. since 2007 ― there are two important differences, the report said. Federal assistance includes a transportation allowance that is meant to allow refugees to access community resources, including agencies that provide help with employment searches. This is not included in provincial assistance. The other key difference is that refugees on federal assistance can earn up to 50 per cent of their monthly income support payments without penalty. Any money earned on provincial income assistance is clawed back dollar for dollar.
“Incomes are going to go down, but needs will stay the same,” said Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs, who attended the report’s launch.
Syrian refugees are generally aware of these changes and worried about how they will support themselves, not unlike non-refugees on provincial income assistance, the report noted. Some Syrian refugee youth said they have already dropped out of high school to find work to support their family, with the hope that they will one day be able to return.
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