After months in Canada, some Afghan refugee children aren't yet allowed to go to school in Waterloo area

Afghan refugee children who arrived in the Waterloo region months ago are spending their days in a hotel rather than in class — because the school board says students need a permanent address in order to register.

Public board says it's working to get children registered as they search for permanent accommodations

Mohammad Aslam Sherzai previously worked as an interpreter with the Canadian military in Afghanistan. He says there's a lack of clothing, food and kitchen facilities in his hotel as refugees wait to be placed — including children who can't attend school until they have a permanent address. He and his family will soon move to Oshawa. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Afghan refugee children who arrived in the Waterloo, Ont., region months ago are spending their days in a hotel rather than in class — because the public school board says students need a permanent address in order to register.

Naseeb Abdul Habib, 32, says he's been in touch with relatives in Toronto, also refugees from Afghanistan, whose children have been provided with plans and activities.

Until recently, Abdul Habib was staying in a Waterloo motel with many other refugee families (he recently moved to an apartment). While his own children are in Afghanistan, he worries that there doesn't seem to be a plan for the newcomer children's educations.

"The kids are still in the rooms," he said.

The problem is compounded by what newcomers say are inadequate necessities as they wait to be placed, a situation a local settlement organization blames on the chaotic nature of the evacuation from Afghanistan.

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton, interim CEO of Reception House, a Kitchener-based organization that receives federal funding to help refugees resettle in Canada, said school registration is a "long-standing systemic issue." 

The Waterloo Region District School Board typically needs a permanent address to register a student. The address determines which school the child could attend.

The board said it's aware of the issue and the effect it's having on newcomers.

In an emailed statement, the board said it's trying to help students start school as quickly as possible while they wait for permanent accommodation. 

"We look forward to joining the upcoming task force that is being formed to address this collaboratively … and once again to be part of a great initiative to welcome newcomers to our WRDSB community," a spokesperson said in an email.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board says a lack of address is not ideal, but it can work with families on a case-by-case basis.

Food allowance too small, say families

Abdul Habib said refugee families are also living on food allowances that don't go far enough. He said he's gone for periods of time eating just bread and yogurt to save money — something that's OK as a single person but which would be untenable for families. 

Naseeb Abdul-Habib says the allowance given to refugees doesn't cover the cost of food for families. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Mohammad Aslam Sherzai, 37, agrees. He and his family are still staying in a Waterloo motel, where his small food budget is compounded by a lack of kitchen facilities. 

And while the motel has a room of clothing donations, Sherzai said it's been tough to find clothes in his size. He still doesn't have winter boots. 

"Now it's getting colder day by day," said Sherzai, a former interpreter with the Canadian Army. 

'A lot of challenges' from speed of resettlement

Griffiths-Fulton acknowledged there have been "a lot of challenges" with the settlement process.

Part of the problem, she said, is that people were airlifted out of Afghanistan so quickly that there was little time to plan for their arrival. Some people have arrived in Canada without being processed for permanent residency. 

"We were just scrambling to find any hotels anywhere that we could put people up in the beginning," she said. 

That also meant refugees ended up spread across multiple hotels — instead of all being in the same place, as was the case when Syrian refugees arrived — and staying longer in hotels that don't have kitchenettes or cooking facilities. 

That families are staying in different hotels has also meant staff with Reception House are spread across multiple locations, she said. 

The Canadian government is preparing to resettle 20,000 people from Afghanistan. Some of them will settle in the Region of Waterloo. Emma Jennings explains how Reception House Waterloo Region will provide support to the people who arrive in the region. 4:03

As for the settlement allowance, Griffiths-Fulton said it's set by the federal government. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) didn't respond to questions from CBC Kitchener-Waterloo about the amount of the allowance. 

Instead, a spokesperson acknowledged that while Canada has a strong settlement program, the first few weeks in the country can be a challenge. 

"While IRCC and settlement service provider organizations are working tirelessly to support refugees, quarantine requirements and limited housing availability pose challenges to this work and sometimes limit the services that can be offered," the spokesperson said. 

Search for new hotel underway

Reception House is now in the process of getting families into a single hotel with better long-term amenities, Griffiths-Fulton said. 

They're also "working on the winter boot situation" and hiring more staff, as more are expected to arrive in the weeks ahead, Griffiths-Fulton said. 

She said that Reception House needs landlords to come forward who can provide affordable rentals — and the organization is looking for doctors willing to take on new families. 

Reception House is currently working with 200 Afghan refugees, just over half of whom have found permanent housing so far. 

As for Abdul Habib, he said he's been so frustrated by his experience in Canada that he's considered going back to Afghanistan. 

Sherzai, meanwhile, plans to move to Oshawa next month, but is apprehensive about what comes next. He doesn't know yet whether he'll have a caseworker to help him get settled in the new city and navigate the bureaucratic hurdles that come with resettlement. 

"I don't know about the future, what will happen with us," he said.