As B.C. prepares to welcome at least 2,400 Syrian refugees by the end of February, advocates say they could face long waits for essential English language courses. 

"It is a huge issue for us," said Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. 

Chris Friesen

Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia is warning of possible wait lists of up to two years for refugee English classes without more funding. (Doug Trent/CBC )

Friesen says, depending on the city, federally-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) courses have wait lists of up to a year or more. 

"If it's not tackled soon, then those wait lists could potentially be a year and a half to maybe even two years," he said. 

Friesen says the worst wait lists are in Surrey and Coquitlam, communities that, because of lower housing costs, are expected to receive a large number of the Syrian refugees bound for B.C.

But the problem isn't just on the Lower Mainland.  

Winnie Lee, the director of operations for the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria said their LINC courses are full, with wait lists of six to nine months. 

It is possible that refugees won't see the worst of the waits, because in some cases they get priority on the lists.

Waiting nearly a year for English courses

But at least one Syrian refugee in Surrey has already felt the brunt of the wait lists. 

Ahmad Hindawi, a father of three who arrived in Canada in October 2014, says he had to wait 11 to 12 months before being accepted to an English course. 

Through a translator, he said it was a "very difficult time" during which he was "waiting, waiting, waiting, very nervously and anxiously." 

Hindawi tried to teach himself English by memorizing words and using Google but found it difficult without anyone to explain the structure of the language.

[Refugees] want to give back and they want to work and pay taxes ...  But without the language acquisition piece, it's a detriment for them to reach their full potential
- Chris Friesen, Immigrant Services Society of B.C. 

During that time, he says, he wasn't able to find paying work. Instead, he did some part-time work for free to gain Canadian experience. 

Friesen says speaking English is key to finding a job for refugees.  

"They want to learn English," he said. 

"They want to give back, and they want to work and pay taxes and all those good things. But without the language acquisition piece, it's a detriment for them to reach their full potential." 

Some of the first Syrian refugees to arrive as part of the latest wave have been lucky. 

Yasin and Majd Alhomsi, who arrived in Burnaby last month, enrolled at Vancouver Community College LINC courses this week. 

Alhomsis enroll at VCC

Yasin Alhomsi, on the left, and his brother Majd, were able to enrol in English classes at Vancouver Community College. (Catherine Rolfsen)

Although most of VCC's LINC classes are full with wait lists, the brothers managed to find spaces. 

Yasin Alhomsi says improving his English is crucial for integrating into Canadian society. 

"It's difficult for us to speak in English in the first days for us. To communicate with people, to make relationships with Canadian people," he said.

"All companies, all owners ask ... first for English language."

Programs suffering from "severe cutback" 

Service providers say the wait list problem was exacerbated when responsibility for LINC classes shifted from the provincial to the federal government in 2014. 

Vasso Vahlas, the executive director of the Surrey Language Assessment and Referral Centre, says since then the LINC program has suffered a "severe cutback." 

Under the new federal program, students can take courses for as long as they like, meaning fewer seats become available for people on the wait list. 

Vahlas says the federal government is working from an outdated funding formula that doesn't account for the fact that more immigrants and refugees are settling in the Fraser Valley. 

All companies, all owners ask ... first for English language - Yasin Alhomsi, Syrian refugee

"The funding didn't follow this trend, this movement, from Vancouver into the suburbs. So we have to revisit the funding issue and pay more attention to where the need is." 

Friesen said he's been asking the federal government for additional funding for LINC classes since November 2015. 

"We're hoping that Ottawa will provide some strategic investments very soon in order to put the supports that are needed in place as soon as possible," he said.  

In an email,  Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship spokesman Remi Lariviere says they're aware of the problem and are working with service providers to meet the increased demand.

The statement makes no promise of additional funding beyond what has already been committed to Syrian refugee resettlement.