British Columbia

One year in, Syrian refugees in B.C. struggle to find employment

A survey of over 300 Syrian refugee families who now live in British Columbia are happy to be here, but still strive for self-sufficiency.

Despite challenges, vast majority learning English and grateful for help

A graphical recording of what young Syrian refugees said about their first year in Canada during a full-day consultation on Sept. 17, 2016. (Immigrant Services Society of B.C.)

A survey of over 300 Syrian refugee families now living in British Columbia show a population happy to be here, but still striving for self-sufficiency.

"One Year In — A Road map to Integration and Citizenship" was published today by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISS), which has been assisting with the transition of more than 2,000 Syrian refugees who have come to the province through government sponsorship in the past year. 

"Syrian adults overall, including young adults, are earnestly learning English, beginning and/or actively looking for work while children are integrating well into the public school system," the report said. 

At the same time, the report revealed the majority are struggling to find employment, and many are experiencing ongoing health issues.

Thankful for support

The survey, which only included government-assisted refugees who had come to British Columbia, showed many refugees had taken significant steps to become self-sufficient since arriving in the province.

Of the respondents, 67 per cent said they were attending a federally-funded adult English language class, and half of those who weren't had been on a wait list for an average of four months.

In addition, 62 per cent said their housing situation was comfortable and 51 per cent said their children were doing "excellent" or "very good" in school.

And in an open-ended question at the end of the survey, the majority of respondents said "thank you", when provided the opportunity to state anything.

"85 per cent simply wanted to say thank you — to Canada, to British Columbians — for the amazing welcome that they have received," said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the ISS.

Employment challenges

However, only 17 per cent of respondents said they were employed on either a full-time or part-time basis, and 66 per cent said they regularly used the food bank. 

"Income security, or lack thereof, is the primary concern of many Syrian refugees both at present and as
they contemplate the transition to BC Income Assistance in month 13," the report says, referring to the fact that the monthly federal stipend ends for government-sponsored refugees after a year. 

"Participants... identified a need for specialized employment interventions to address the barriers refugee faced by refugee youth and young adults in entering the labour market. Suggestions included programs targeting job search and skills development, mentorship and one-on-one support, Canadian workplace cultural orientations, and placement opportunities."

Another 30 per cent of respondents said their family members either felt depressed (16 per cent) or sad, (14 per cent) as well.

Friesen said the lack of access to mental health resources is still a major problem for Syrian refugees, particularly young people. He said about 15 per cent require additional mental health support.

"This is a huge gap in our current system in Canada," Friesen said. "We don't have the ability, for example, to refer refugees to registered clinical counsellors."

Friesen said family reunification remains a major concern for many Syrian refugees. The report found 74 per cent still have family members still living in Syria amid the ongoing civil war, and they would like to reunite with them in Canada.

Vast majority live in urban areas

Approximately 2,100 GAR settled in British Columbia, virtually all of them in Metro Vancouver. 

Of the 301 families who took part in the survey, 51 per cent initially settled in Surrey, 12 per cent settled in Coquitlam, and 11 per cent settled in both Vancouver and Burnaby. 

Initial Settlement locations for 301 families from Syria who arrived to British Columbia as government-assisted refugees in the last month. (Immigrant Services Society of B.C)