Edmonton refugee programs under pressure to meet increasing demand

More than 10,000 Syrain refugees have arrived in the country since December. The government plans to welcome about 15,000 more by the end of February. In Edmonton, as many as 300 refugees have turned ​to the Edmonton Islamic Relief Centre for help, and they're struggling to meet demand.

Volunteers, sponsors and outreach centres start to feel the strain

Hussein Jomaa says volunteers at the Edmonton Islamic Relief Centre are feeling the strain of helping a growing number of Syrian refugees in the city. (Patrick Knowles/CBC)

Snow boots, rain boots, dress shoes, soccer cleats, sneakers, slippers, baby shoes, loafers — even a pair of pink leather platform heels.

​They all line the shelves of an Edmonton Islamic centre, ready to walk refugees into every imaginable aspect of their new lives in Canada.

More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the country since November. The government plans to welcome about 15,000 more by the end of February.

In Edmonton, as many as 300 refugees have turned ​to the Edmonton Islamic Relief Centre for help. 

"Nobody was expecting the tremendous amount of work that was waiting when these people arrived," said Hussein Jomaa, the centre's chairman.

Volunteers have been sorting through donations for months.Clothes are stacked in every corner of the centre — neatly folded or still in bags. Bedding, hygiene products and kitchen utensils are starting to run out.

Refugees face cultural barrier

Jomaa says most refugees arrive in Edmonton with their own clothes, but without furniture or household items. They also face a cultural barrier. 

Few speak English, and they struggle with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. Jomaa says driving classes and English lessons are meant to make them more independent, but the benefits aren't immediate, so refugees still rely heavily on volunteers and sponsors.

"When these families started arriving, it was so many things," he said, adding the centre's volunteers expected the work "but we weren't ready for it."

Jomaa says private sponsors are also starting to feel the financial strain of supporting refugees. He hopes the government will budget more money for refugees, at least until they're able to support themselves.

"They're very talented," he said. "They think they're going to add value to this city."

Meanwhile, housing shortages in Vancouver and Ottawa forced agencies to stop accepting government-assisted Syrian refugees. That's after temporary housing filled to capacity last month.

Settlement groups in both cities say they can't accept any new cases until they're able to move people to permanent homes.

Talk will focus on integration

A public roundtable about the reality of integrating refugees in Canada is planned for Wednesday at the University of Alberta.

"It's a tough market right now in Alberta with the crash of the price of oil, so I think those challenges are going to be even more acute," said Lori Thorlakson, director of the university's European Union Centre of Excellence. 

"It's not just about looking at what's happening in Europe right now and discussing that," Thorlakson said. "I think a lot of the focus is to look at what it means for Canada and what it means for the City of Edmonton, for the province of Alberta.

"When we take in a number of migrants, what are the issues we have to address? What might go wrong? And how can we predict that? How can we prevent that?"

The roundtable is part of a larger body of articles, reports and interviews about refugees. They're featured on a special website created by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies and the European Union Centre of Excellence at the U of A.