Small cities give Syrian refugees better start, big ones offer better future

When it comes to a community’s ability to help refugees settle into life in Canada, it turns out that size does matter, says a University of Alberta researcher.

Small communities able to be more nimble and creative, says U of A researcher

A family of Syrian refugees receives winter clothes and other items at Pearson International airport in Toronto in 2015. (The Canadian Press)

When it comes to a community's ability to help refugees settle into life in Canada, it turns out that size does matter, says a University of Alberta researcher.

Syrian refugees who went to Lethbridge, a city of about 100,000, reported a higher satisfaction with both the community at large and the specific aid services offered, said professor Sandeep Agrawal, who conducted a survey of Syrian refugees in Edmonton and the southern Alberta city within a year of their arrival in Canada.

What's less straightforward, however, is whether the overall experience is better in a smaller centre or in a big city.

"What we found is that a small municipality such as Lethbridge actually was able to be more nimble and creative and efficient in providing settlement services to Syrian newcomers," Agrawal told CBC's Edmonton AM on Monday.

An example of Lethbridge's creative solutions could be seen in a multidisciplinary medical clinic that was set up through the efforts of Alberta Health and Lethbridge Family Services. 

"Any newcomer Syrian coming into the city was able to access this clinic, get their medical checkup done, get access to a family physician, you name it," said Agrawal, from the U of A's School of Urban and Regional Planning. "The lab tests and everything was being done at one place."

In Edmonton, he said, refugees needed multiple medical appointments to get everything done.

The Lethbridge introduction to life in Canada was also more "homelike" to refugees, many of whom hailed from small or rural communities in Syria, he said.

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

"The environment was much more familiar to them. They got one-on-one services, much more time with their settlement workers," Agrawal said. "I think they could thrive a little bit better and get on their two feet because there was a lot more help available there."

But the small city experience wasn't perfect, he said.

"The flip side" of the personal touch offered by a small community was that individuals providing services to refugees began suffering from what Agrawal called "compassion fatigue."

Another key disadvantage of landing in a smaller centre was a noted lack of culturally sensitive services, he said.

"In Edmonton, for instance, there were many more religious institutions like mosques, for instance, and more ethno-specific organizations who were involved in providing more culturally and linguistically appropriate services like halal food or training ... which were not really available in a small place like Lethbridge," he said.

He cited organizations such as the Al-Rashid Mosque, the Islamic Family & Social Services Association and Action for Healthy Communities for their abilities to improvise and customize services to suit the immediate needs of refugees. 

As well, the long-term prospects for education — including English language lessons — and employment were likely to be better in a big city, he said. 

Agrawal's research included interviews conducted about 18 months ago with 120 refugees in Edmonton and about 20 in Lethbridge. At the time, there were about 1,500 newly arrived refugees in Edmonton and about 200 in Lethbridge. 

There is no clear explanation for how government agencies decide where newly arrived refugees will be sent to live, he said, an area that requires further research.

"Our government agencies would be well served to conduct critical analyses before determining the number of refugees destined to various urban centres across the country," Agrawal said in a news release.