Syrian refugees arrive from Beirut at a hotel in Mississauga, Ontario Dec. 10, 2015. CNS photo/Mark Blinch, Reuters

Syrian refugees, agencies face obstacles a year after settlement

  • December 14, 2016

Will Month 13 unsettle thousands of Syrian refugees who have already settled in Canada?

It’s certainly a possibility, says Catholic Crosscultural Services of Toronto executive director Caroline Davis.

Month 13 is how settlement agencies like CCR refer to what happens one year after a refugee arrives in Canada. At that point, federal supports disappear. For those refugees who haven’t landed a job in their first year, it usually means moving down a notch in income as they move into the provincial welfare system.

Of the 36,300 Syrian refugees welcomed to Canada since Dec. 10 last year, about 15,000 settled in Ontario.

A single adult refugee receives $822 a month in federal assistance over the first 12 months. Ontario Works (OW), the province’s main welfare program, pays $706 a month for a single adult.

“One of the obstacles for some people will be the housing that they might be in now might be a bit too expensive,” Davis said. “Not very many have been living large, but it might still be more expensive than they can afford on an ongoing basis.”

Ontario Works provides a “maximum board and lodging” allowance for two parents with three children of $931. Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation currently lists the average market rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Toronto at $1,540.

The decision to look for cheaper rent isn’t simple. Children have had their first year of Canadian schooling. Yanking them out of their school to start again in another might not be worth the $100 or $200 per month saved in rent. Parents are also enrolled in English classes where they have grown comfortable.

About half the Syrian refugees sponsored by churches and other volunteer groups have found employment in their first year. But only about 10 per cent of government-sponsored refugees — often more traumatized and many with disabilities — have been able to settle into jobs. Studies have shown the social and business networks of private sponsorship groups give privately sponsored refugees an advantage.

But just finding a job isn’t necessarily the best path forward for refugees. Survival jobs sometimes trap refugees who haven’t really mastered English into a low-wage, part-time cycle.

“There are folks who really want to work and who don’t like the idea of receiving OW or even receiving funds from their sponsor group or from the Canadian government allowance. They would rather work,” Davis said.

For refugees who arrived with little or no English, working may not even be an option.

“Getting your English language skills from zero to something that would allow you to enter the workforce is going to take maybe longer than a year,” Davis said.

Like many settlement agencies, it’s been a struggle for Catholic Crosscultural Services to keep up with demand for English classes.

“Certainly we could use some more of them,” said Davis.

But it’s more complicated than just renting more classroom space and hiring more qualified teachers. There’s also the issue of child care.

“That can also be an obstacle in being able to take the class, if you have nowhere to put the children while you take the class,” Davis said.

Starting in January, Catholic Crosscultural Services will open English classes in a Mississauga apartment building with a high concentration of Syrian new Canadians. The hope is that Syrians in the building and surrounding buildings will be able to make child-minding arrangements among themselves — where one parent takes the morning class and watches the neighbour’s children in the afternoon, allowing the neighbour to also take classes.

“We’re trying a few things. I don’t know whether we’ve come up with the golden solution yet, but we’re still trying,” said Davis.

“Resettling refugees will continue to be a proud reflection of Canada’s humanitarian tradition,” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said in a prepared statement. “It demonstrates to the world that we have a shared responsibility to help those who are displaced, persecuted and most in need of protection.”

Ottawa set a goal to welcome 40,000 refugees in 2017 — the highest target in over a decade but down from the total of 55,800 who came to Canada in 2016.

For Catholic Crosscultural Services of Toronto, the Syrian influx has been a major challenge and the agency is still scrambling to hire enough Arabic-speaking settlement workers.

“It has quadrupled at this point in the work we are doing, and that’s not going to disappear quickly,” Davis said. “The demand for service with our Arabic-speaking staff has been unprecedented.”

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