Syrian newcomers agree language training is key to finding work

Only 20 per cent of working-age Syrians have found jobs since they arrived in province a year ago, and the New Brunswick government hopes more funding for language training will improve their prospects.

'It's the most important thing — to communicate with the Canadians'

Obadah Matar Al Hagali, 18, says learning English is a priority for many young Syrian refugees, who want to study at university and learn about Canadian culture. (Viola Pruss/CBC)

In Iraq, Ahmed Enana Jaber worked as a mechanic.

When war forced Enana Jaber to leave Iraq with his wife and four sons, they sought refuge in Canada.

Now finding work is difficult, he said.

He only started to speak English after he arrived in Fredericton in September 2015. He continues to take classes, but his English is still not good enough to find employment or go back to school, he said.

"The language is very important if you want to open a business or get a job," he said. "I am thinking about a job but I think first I must complete my English."

Funding for language training

Since December 2015, New Brunswick has taken in 1,554 refugees. About 600 of them are school-age children, and 604 are working-age adults.

But only 20 per cent of the adults have found employment since they arrived: Fifteen per cent continue to be self-employed or work in full- or part-time positions. Five per cent have worked in seasonal jobs, such as tree planting.

With federal assistance payments for refugees running out after their first year in Canada, the provinces are now left to foot the bill.

In a recent interview with CBC, Don Arseneault, minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, said the province always knew it would have to take over the payments after one year.

But he hopes the federal government will provide more funding for language training.

Once the refugees can speak English or French, it will be easier for them to get a job, he said.

"And some of them come with the skill set, and we can maybe match them up with certain opportunities we seem to have a hard time filling in New Brunswick," he said.

Volunteers can help, too

Settlement agencies across the province already provide free language courses that are available to new immigrants.

The courses teach everything from the first basic words to English used in business. Training is available for children as young as eight and to adults of any age. To accommodate those who work, the agencies also try to provide evening and weekend classes.

Funding for the courses comes from government coffers.

Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said he cannot comment on the minister's proposal or on whether that's where the money is needed most.

Alex LeBlanc of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council says language is not only learned in the classroom but also at work and in the community. (CBC)

Settlement agencies are now in negotiations with the federal government to renew their funding for the next three years, he said.

"I guess it's a little early to comment about what the gaps are," he said.

He stressed, however that language is not only learned in the classroom but also at work and in the community.

Settlement agencies across New Brunswick continue to look for volunteers who want to work with the refugees, he said.

"Because those volunteers help newcomers to get involved in their communities, they help them to practise language and can open up opportunities for employment as well," he said.

Agencies learn to adapt

In a normal year, the Fredericton Multicultural Association serves more than 1,000 newcomers.

But over the next three years, the Atlantic provinces want to bring in 2,000 skilled workers to boost their economy through the Atlantic immigration pilot, said executive director Lisa Bamford De Gante.

And with almost 500 Syrian refugees moving to the city this year, and another 115 expected to arrive in the province in 2017, the agencies had to adapt.

Lisa Bamford De Gante, executive director of the Fredericton Multicultural Association, says the agency had to adapt to growing demands. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

She said the Fredericton association hired more Arabic-speaking settlement staff, and will renovate its building to make room for six new classrooms and child-care services.

Similar upgrades will take place at the Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area, while Saint John's agency is looking for more professionally trained second-language teachers, she said.

"Last year we had a large number of people come in at a very condensed period, so it meant that everything just had to move more quickly," she said.

"But we wanted more classrooms from the time we moved to this building."

Classrooms are full

Sheila Scott, one of the teachers of English as a second language in Fredericton, said training the newcomers in English is undoubtedly important.

It helps them network and find employment, she said.

Learning English helps Syrian refugees network and find employment, say settlement agencies and teachers. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Scott added that her classroom at the multicultural association is always full. This is not a problem for her but it's important that her students continue to have access to classes. There are some wait lists, though she does not know how many people are affected by them.

To provide good services tor people, government funding is needed, she said.

"We actually talked about it today in class about the importance of language and how there are other ways besides just being in English class to learn, how being out socializing, networking, employment  all of these things helped as well," she said.

"But they feel that getting their English classes is very important to them."

Youth learn faster

Obadah Matar Al Hagali, an 18-year old Syrian refugee who has lived in Fredericton for 10 months, agreed.

The Grade 12 student learned English in Syria and now practises it at school. Eventually, he hopes to go to university and work as a chemical engineer.

But his parents, who were never exposed to English until arriving in Canada, struggle to learn the language. It's harder for them to find employment, he said.

"It's really important to learn the language," he said. "It's the most important thing — to communicate with the Canadians."