Syrian refugees in Alberta facing new challenges with federal sponsorship ending

Syrian refugees living in Edmonton are about to face a new reality of living without the federal assistance that has helped cover their costs for their first year in Canada. Many are expecting to apply for provincial income support. Their language skills remain a barrier to them finding work.

‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it’: Amer Dada

Amer Dada has been trying to find work with help through the Bredin Centre for Learning but is finding his language skills are a barrier to getting a job. (Gareth Hampshire CBC News)

Amer Dada can't even put into words how grateful he is to live in Canada since arriving as a Syrian refugee, but finding a job to support his family is turning out to be much tougher than he expected.

"It's harder to find jobs because most of the employers ask for a certain level of English that I don't have yet," he said, speaking in Arabic through a translator.

Dada, 30, would take any kind of work but at the moment, he can't even get in the door in entry-level jobs at fast food restaurants.

Every time he applies, employers tell him his English isn't good enough.

'Very, very, very worried'

He is increasingly anxious about how he'll pay the bills with a wife and two-year-old son to support and only one month left of federal sponsorship before it's cut off at the end of December.

"I'm very, very, very worried because I don't know how I'm going to do it after the government support ends," he said.

Dada arrived in Edmonton last January but it was several months before a spot opened up in English classes, meaning it took him longer than he had hoped to get started.

For the past six months he's been in classes five days a week, but his English is still behind where employers want it to be.

"It's quite common. The problem is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are at a very basic level of language skills," explained Tarek Fath Elbab, a settlement counsellor at the Bredin Centre for Learning which is helping refugees adjust to life in Edmonton.

Dada is getting help writing resumes and applications from Tarek Fath Elbab at the Bredin Centre for Learning. (Gareth Hampshire CBC News)

Dada does have the option of applying for income support through provincial government programs.

He's already looking into it. While he's thankful for the prospect of that safety net, he's expecting to receive less money than he gets through the federal sponsorship he's currently collecting, which includes housing supplements.

He currently receives about $1,600 a month in federal assistance. He said Alberta would give him $1,142. But he pays $900 rent on a one-bedroom apartment.

"I'm just trying to figure out what I'm going to do and I have no idea," he said.

Dada is one of more than 5,800 refugees to arrive in Alberta since last November. Of the total, 4,196 are Syrian.

While the Trudeau government brought them to Canada, it's the province that has the longer term job of helping them adapt to life in Alberta.

'We've known this was coming'

The provincial government is preparing for an increase in the number of people applying for social assistance in December when federal sponsorship runs out for the first wave of refugees.

The province said it's been planning for what's known as Month 13.

"We've known this was coming. This was always part of the plan and so we've had a cross-ministry group planning for this," said Alberta's Minister of Labour, Christina Gray.

Gray said the province has been talking to settlement agencies to make sure the refugees are connecting to the supports they need.

Her office points out that more than 80 per cent of Syrian refugees have started English classes, which are funded by Ottawa.

The provincial plan to help the refugees get jobs also includes access to employment and training programs.

Successfully resettling the refugees is a commitment Gray said Alberta will stand by. She described the refugees from Syria as "very vulnerable."

Call for local businesses to step up with jobs

But a volunteer group that has been helping the refugees says it shouldn't fall only to the government to deal with the issue.

It wants to see Edmonton businesses step up and offer some solutions as well.

Julie Kamal, who founded Edmonton Refugee Volunteers, said a number of Arabic-speaking businesses have been able to find jobs for some refugees. She wants to see others follow that example.

"We're calling on  local businesses to allow the opportunities for the Syrians to get integrated more into our community," Kamal said.

As tough as it is for Dada right now, he's committed to life in Canada, still believing his family has a great future in Alberta.

"It's very safe here, better than any country and people are wonderful," he said.

Dada receives a cuddly toy for his two-year-old son. (Gareth Hampshire CBC News)