British Columbia

Syrian refugees say they feel trapped without adequate help

As B.C. prepares to welcome a "surge" of 1,100 Syrian government-assisted refugees, some of the families already in the province say support services are inadequate.

Critics say changes are needed to support 1,100 Syrian refugees arriving in B.C. in coming days

Syrian refugees Saja Aeash, left, and her husband Shadi Alradi say they are trying to teach themselves English online while they wait to start English courses. (CBC News)

As B.C. prepares to welcome a "surge" of 1,100 Syrian government-assisted refugees, some of the families already in the province say support services are inadequate.

"It's been two months since I've requested just to have the exam for the English [course placement]," says government-assisted Syrian refugee Shadi Alradi, speaking through an interpreter.

Alradi moved into an apartment in Coquitlam a month ago.

"The [Immigrant Services Society of B.C.] responded that they don't even have 15 minutes to talk with me ... This makes me feel frustrated and depressed since I don't have any more time to waste." 

Alradi says he feels trapped in his home: He can't afford the bus fare to visit the library with his toddler, can't find help arranging for emergency dental treatment, and can't figure out when and if he will be enrolled in English courses. 

His neighbour, Abeer Louaihaq, says she and her family "feel like strangers" because they haven't had an opportunity to learn English. 

Syrian refugee Abeer Louaihaq says she's not getting the help she needs to integrate into her new community. 'We keep asking but no one is telling us anything useful.' (CBC News)

"Not knowing the language has created obstacles in everyday life," she says, also speaking through a interpreter. 

"For example, I'm not able to communicate with my children's teachers in school. They try to talk to me and I can't understand what they're saying." 

As CBC reported earlier this year, wait lists can be one to 16 months for federally funded language courses for newcomers to Canada

In an email, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokeswoman Nancy Caron said the federal government is working closely with service providers in B.C., and that "adjustments will be made to some service provider agreements in response to changing client volume and needs."

Louaihaq and Alradi say they understand that settlement workers are busy, and emphasize they're grateful to the government of Canada and Canadians for welcoming them. 

"The main reason that we're in such a rush is because we don't want to feel like the government is paying for all our bills," Alradi says. 

"We want to depend on ourselves. We want to have jobs. We want to blend in." 

1,100 more Syrians on their way to B.C. 

Settlement agencies will become even more stretched in the coming days. 

ISSofBC director Chris Friesen says they're expecting an "arrival surge" of 1,100 government-assisted Syrian refugees in the next 10 days — more than the agency typically serves in a year — destined for communities across B.C.

Chris Friesen of ISSofBC says his agency is expecting 1100 Syrian government assisted refugees in the next 10 days. (Doug Trent/CBC )

Since Nov. 4, 2015, more than 1,770 Syrian refugees have arrived in B.C., 1,411 of them government-assisted. 

ISSofBC is under contract with the federal government to provide initial settlement support to government-assisted refugees for their first four to six weeks in B.C., but Friesen says after they move into permanent housing, responsibility falls to community service providers.

Friesen says they're beginning the process of connecting local agencies with Syrian refugees, and he's confident new federal funding will ease waits for English courses. 

"There are so many moving pieces to this project and some of them are still coming on board," Friesen says. 

"Additional Syrian funds have been made available by Ottawa to each province ... So the intent is to have all of those wait lists removed as quickly as possible."

Friesen says he's not surprised refugees are frustrated. 

"The dip that many refugees and immigrants experience begins around the two to three-month mark after arrival in this country," he says.

"Anxiety, depression ... that's why it's so key to have those resources in place." 

'Insufficient resources on the ground'

Federal NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan says it's not just refugees in permanent housing who are having trouble finding adequate support.

She says she has spoken to families who have been in limbo in hotels for more than a month.

"They still don't know what's going to happen to them, when they're going to resettle into permanent housing," she says. 

"What we're seeing is there are insufficient resources on the ground to assist with the resettlement process."

Federal NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan says 'the government needs to make changes' to how settlement services are organized in B.C. (CBC)

Kwan is calling on the federal government to allow settlement agencies other than ISSofBC compete for contracts for initial resettlement. 

Friesen says ISSofBC is already working with some other service providers, but he worries about distractions during the first few weeks.

"We're mindful on the one hand that, yes, folks would benefit from some additional programing on site, but on the other hand we don't want to deflect from our primary goal of getting them into permanent housing." 

With interpretation from Reem Youssef