New Brunswick

Saint John losing Syrian newcomers to larger cities

At least five Syrian refugee families who arrived in Saint John last winter are already making plans to move to larger Canadian cities, says a volunteer who has been helping the newcomers get settled.

Volunteer Janet Hunt is 'heartbroken' and wonders what more could have been done to keep families here

Janet Hunt (left) says being a volunteer has been 'tremendously rewarding' and she's 'heartbroken' the Syrian family she and her husband helped get settled in Saint John is leaving. (Submitted)

Some Syrian refugee families who arrived in Saint John last winter are already making plans to move to larger Canadian cities, says a volunteer who has been helping the newcomers get settled.

Janet Hunt said she believes a lack of jobs and wanting to be reunited with friends are the biggest reasons they're leaving.

But she wonders whether dispersed placements, improved English language training and a greater community effort to make the newcomers feel welcome might have made a difference.

"I just feel … we could probably do more of that, community events, so that other people can meet the Syrians and see how welcoming and gracious they are."

Hunt says she knows of five families — about 16 people — who are leaving for Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.

And she's heard "rumblings" from other people that more families are also planning to go.

"Overall, I think they're happy," said Hunt. 

"I think basically it's because the prospects of jobs are better there, in the bigger centres, and also their friends have a big influence over them and they've been wanting them to go."

One man, for example, is a factory mechanic and feels he needs to move to Montreal to get a factory job, said Hunt.

"He doesn't see any light at the end of the tunnel here in Saint John that there's going to be any hope for him to get work here, she said.

Learning English is a challenge

Hunt said she believes language barriers have also played a role in her Syrian family's decision to leave.

"They are taking English lessons but our dad, I think, is frustrated the English isn't coming as quickly as he would like," she said.

He is a master craftsman and Hunt was hoping he might stay, open up a business and employ other people, but if he moves to a bigger city and lives in a Muslim community, "the language barrier won't be such a challenge."

"He feels he can work and not have to speak a lot of English."

Hunt contends putting the majority of the Saint John Syrian families together in one neighbourhood — Crescent Valley — has "been a disservice to them" when it comes to learning English.

She notes another family, located on Crown Street, is picking up English more quickly and she suspects that's because their neighbours are Canadians, not fellow Syrians.

Hunt says she understands it's easier for someone who's not from Canada to feel most at ease around others who speak their language and share their customs.

"But my problem with that is they're not going to integrate with our Canadian society … and learn our customs and our traditions. And I think they're not going to learn English in the end, if they're going to these other communities."

Need for follow-up

Hunt, who spends time with her newcomer family every week, also thinks the YMCA of Greater Saint John and volunteer welcome teams did a good job getting the families settled, but suggests there could have been more follow-up.

"You really have to keep in touch with them so that they don't feel they're lost," she said.

They're not just our friends now, they're our family.- Janet Hunt, volunteer

"Just making sure that they're OK."

If Saint John ever gets another influx of refugees, Hunt and her husband would like to sit on a board to offer input, based on lessons learned.

"I think we could bring a lot to the table on certain things that should have been done and might have been able to be done better — and I think all the welcome teams would probably play a big role in that," she said.

Serving as a host family has been "a tremendously rewarding experience," said Hunt.

"The Syrians are lovely people. They're very welcoming, they're very gracious. Basically, we've just fallen in love with all of them, the ones we have met."

Hunt says she's "heartbroken" her Syrian family is leaving.

"They mean a lot to us. We love their children and we have them over for supper at our house and we do activities with them. I mean, we're always with them and we're really going to miss that," she said.

"They're not just our friends now, they're our family."

With files from Information Morning Saint John