British Columbia·Analysis

Syrian refugees don't all get an equal start in Canada

Government-assisted Syrian refugees tend to be more vulnerable than their privately-sponsored counterparts: they have larger families, lower levels of education, and less knowledge of French or English. And yet they get less individualized support.

Government-assisted refugees are the most vulnerable and receive less individualized support

Syrian refugee Mohammad Almostafa and his daughter Jana relax in his apartment with some of his sponsors. From left, they are Don Strangway, Ron Gamache, Lynn Gamache, Connie Thompson and Sue Head. (Catherine Rolfsen )

The table has been laid with home-made pita bread, falafel, and fatteh — a Syrian dish of yoghurt and chickpeas. 

Mohammad Almostafa and Heba Alzouabi sit down, a little shyly, as if embarrassed that all this fuss is for them. 

The Syrian refugees, along with their baby daughter Jana, are being treated to lunch at a neighbour's home, in their new community of Abbotsford. 

It's just one of the welcoming activities planned for the young family by their sponsors at the Interfaith Refugee Project.

"When we first were made aware of our moving to Canada we didn't know what to expect," Almostafa said through an interpreter. 

Syrian refugee Mohammad Almostafa, pictured here with his daughter Jana, says he wasn't aware his family would be privately sponsored until he arrived in Canada. (Catherine Rolfsen)

It wasn't until the family landed on Jan. 29 that they realized there would be a network of 25 people looking out for their every need as they settle in Canada. 

"They had a poster and it was written, 'Welcome to Canada' in Arabic and in English. It had my name, it had my wife's name and Jana's name as well ... It was a happy moment for us."

The sponsorship group includes retired doctors, ESL teachers, a finance committee and a local mom collecting toys. Within a week, they'd settled the family in a garden-level apartment, and someone checks in on them most days. 

Privately-sponsored versus government-assisted

Almostafa, his wife and daughter are among more than 11,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015, under private sponsorship agreements, or under a blended visa agreement between private sponsors and the government. 

But the majority of the Syrians who have arrived in Canada in recent months are government-assisted refugees. 

The federal government is expected to reveal by Mar. 9 how many more refugees it will accept during the remainder of 2016. 
Hoda Alsidawi, 24, and her mother Fayza are government-assisted Syrian refugees who are having trouble finding an affordable home for their family of six to accommodate Hoda's special needs. (Catherine Rolfsen)

Government-assisted Syrian refugees tend to be more vulnerable than their privately-sponsored counterparts. They have larger families, lower levels of education and less knowledge of French or English. 

And yet they get less individualized support. 

Refugee advocate David Matas describes the experience of government-assisted refugees landing in Canada as "cold turkey." 

"They are given income assistance, but they don't have, like private sponsorship, a private point of contact," he says.

"Eveything is bureaucratic and institutionalized. They are kind of otherwise left on their own. There's nobody holding their hand as they walk themselves through the system of adjusting to Canada." 

Agencies like ISSofBC are working full-tilt to help government-assisted refugees. 

But the majority in B.C. are still waiting to find permanent affordable housing, and some face challenges accessing medical treatment and long waits for federally-funded English courses

Refugee categories seem to have some impact on their outcomes. 

According to the federal government, about 14 per cent of government-assisted refugees find work during their first year in Canada, while more than half of privately sponsored refugees do.

"[Privately-sponsored refugees] have the network, they have the support, they have their mentors," says Najah Hage, the manager of employment programs at Mosaic. 

How quickly do different categories of refugees find work? 

Trying to fill the gaps

But help is beginning to emerge to ensure that government-assisted Syrian refugees have a network and ongoing support. 

Informal English courses are being organized, and more than 5,700 volunteers have signed up to help Syrian refugees through ISSofBC. There are so many that the agency has stopped accepting volunteers as it trains recruits. 

Lucy De Pieri is one of the settlement mentors already on the ground. 

She's been paired with Manel Okla, a Syrian government-assisted refugee who's found a home with her family in a Coquitlam housing complex. 

Manel Okla and her family have been paired with a settlement volunteer through ISSofBC. (Catherine Rolfsen/CBC)

On the day of CBC's visit, De Pieri brings measuring cups so Okla can make an angel food cake. 

"I don't know how. She helps me," Okla laughs, as she peers at the instructions on the instant mix. 

Asked about the level of support government-assisted refugees get, De Pieri says, "I think that the structure that needs to be in place is not totally there." 

But through small acts of friendship like this, support systems are being built. 

"I thought if I can help just one family, it will just make all this sadness, this trauma a little bit less," De Pieri says.

"When they get better, they will talk to their friends and they will have some hope and that just spreads." 

With interpretation from Bayan Ajjeh and Reem Youssef. Interactive by Tamara Baluja

Hear more about this story on The Current on CBC Radio One on Mar. 7. 


Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at or @crolfsen