Private and government-sponsored Syrian refugees face same challenges, U of A study finds

Syrian refugees who settled in Edmonton struggled with learning English and finding employment, whether they were sponsored privately or by the federal government, says a University of Alberta researcher.

Learning English and finding employment were main obstacles

Syrian refugees face challenges learning English and finding employment once they arrive to Edmonton, according to a University of Alberta study. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Syrian refugees who settled in Edmonton struggled with learning English and finding employment, whether they were sponsored privately or by the federal government, says a University of Alberta researcher. 

The assumption that privately sponsored refugees face fewer challenges than government-sponsored refugees wasn't supported by the study, said professor Sandeep Agrawal, from the U of A's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

"They had the same set of challenges and problems as government-sponsored refugees faced in terms of employment, in terms of learning English," Agrawal said. 

"They are not better off as we thought they would be."

Agrawal and his associates interviewed 84 refugees who had been in Edmonton for less than a year to compare their settlement experiences.

In his study, Sandeep Agrawal found that Syrian refugees who came through the blended visa office referral program (BVOR) were most satisfied with their situation. (Geneviève Tardif/Radio-Canada)

Of those refugees, 45 came through  privately sponsored refugee programs and 31 through the government-assisted refugee program.

Eight other respondents had arrived through the blended visa office referral program (BVOR), where a private sponsor and the federal government share the cost and responsibility of settling the family. 

All Syrian refugees receive financial support during their first year in Canada. 

'Better way forward'  

Privately sponsored refugees benefited from having a support system that helped them integrate, Agrawal said. 

The staff at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers also observed that trend.  

"Either the family that they are joining or the sponsorship group connects them to a community much more effectively than an organization could do," explained Suzanne Gross, manager of external partnerships and collaborations, . 

The downside of the private system is that sponsors get to choose which refugees they help, said Agrawal.

"There is no criteria. As long as you are willing to put up the money, you can bring whoever you want," he said. "They tend to be more educated and can speak more English." 

Government sponsorship targets vulnerable refugees, such as women, children, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Based on his research, Agrawal favours the BVOR program that uses government criteria to select refugees and then  matches them with a private sponsor.

"Perhaps BVOR is the better way forward," Agrawal said. "There is some fairness and justice for vulnerable people." 

Language and employment

Suzanne Gross is with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, which supports refugees and immigrants as they settle into their new city. (David Bajer/CBC)

Regardless of how they arrived in Edmonton, study participants all struggled with learning English and finding a job. 

Only two of the 84 respondents had full-time employment.

"Learning language is slow," Gross said. "You see people lose their drive and wish they could earn for their family."

Refugees would benefit from having the option to take language classes combined with vocational training, she added.

"When you create a program that addresses language and helps bridge people into things, that's always strong. We can do more of that."

Despite the challenges, study respondents expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to start a new life in Edmonton, Agrawal said.

Refugees who came through the BVOR program were the most satisfied with their situation, he added.

"That says a lot about what they've been through," said Agrawal. "But it'll take them time to settle down, find employment, and stand on their own two feet."