Syrian refugees prepare to seek provincial social assistance

Many of the newcomers are eager to work, and compared to the rest of Canada, a higher percentage of Syrian refugees in New Brunswick are already employed, says government.

Many newcomers already work, but others still need to improve their language skills, say settlement agencies

About 14 Syrian refugee families were screened to receive financial aid under the provincial social assistance program come January. (CBC)

New Brunswick will soon provide social assistance to the first Syrian refugees, now that their one-year federal allowance is coming to an end.

About 14 families were already screened to receive financial aid under the provincial program come January, said Donald Arseneault, minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour.

But social assistance is only a means to an end, he said. The long-term goal is to see people employed.

"That's why we invest in training opportunities and language training and so forth to get them into the work place as quickly as we can in order to avoid more social assistance recipients," he said. "If we are successful, that means they have a job."

Federal assistance running out

When the first Syrian refugees arrived in Canada in December 2015 those without financial resources or income of their own were eligible for a monthly federal allowance.

Support from the resettlement assistance program was available for up to one year, after which refugees could apply for provincial assistance. In addition, they were entitled to a one-time payment to buy clothing or household items.

Arseneault said the federal program was tied to the individual provincial programs, so the amount of money people receive once they switch from one to the other will not change by much.

The basic rate of social assistance in New Brunswick is $537 for one person. But the amount changes based on how many adults and children live under one roof, and whether they are eligible for other benefits, such as disability.

Arseneault could not say how many families will receive social assistance payments starting next year, or how much the government plans to spend in total. That number will be available once the budget for 2017 is tabled, he said.

But New Brunswick has money set aside for this, he said.

"There is no doubt that we got to keep continuing being efficient and making sure we grow the economy," he said. "But we are very comfortable in the fiscal framing that we do have that this can be taken care of."

More funding for language classes

Arseneault added that the province always knew it would have to take over the payments after one year. But he hopes that the federal government will provide more funding for language training.

Once the refugees can speak an official language, it will be easier for them to get a job, he said.

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

Settlement agencies, such as the Fredericton Multicultural Association, already provide free language courses that are available to all new immigrants, said executive director Lisa Bamford de Gante.

Lisa Bamford De Gante of the Fredericton Multicultural Association says settlement agencies have been getting Syrian refugees ready for a change to provincial social assistance. (CBC)

But unlike other immigrants, many of the adult Syrian refugees arrived with little to no French or English skills. In order to take on jobs quickly, they need more training, she said.

"When people come as government-assisted refugees they are brought in for humanitarian reasons not based on specific skills or language proficiencies," she said.

"We have some people who are at a high professional level of language when they arrive and other people who are at the very, very first level."

Preparing for the transition

To keep up with the large number of people who may apply for social assistance over the coming months, settlement agencies worked with government departments since August to prepare a transition plan.

Bamford de Gante said the refugees were given information sessions in Arabic, and went on guided field trips to the Department of Social Development.

They were also assigned an Arabic-speaking case worker, and some had their cases reviewed in advance.

"Rather than have a large group of people come up to that point before they apply, this is just giving them an idea beforehand whether or not they might be eligible," she said.

Better than rest of Canada

Since December 2015, New Brunswick resettled more refugees per capita than any other province.  Nonetheless, it outperforms the rest of Canada when it comes to employing Syrians.

In a recent interview with CBC Information Morning, Alex LeBlanc, executive director with the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said the province welcomed 1,554 Syrians since December 2015.

Fifteen per cent are now self-employed or work in full- and part-time positions.  Another five per cent gained some experience working in seasonal jobs, such as tree planting.

Across the rest of Canada, only eleven per cent of all Syrian refugees are employed full-time, he said.

Need for volunteers

While he agreed that language training is key to bringing the newcomers on the job market, he also stressed the need for more volunteers and private sponsors.

There are 87 Syrian refugee families now living in the province, with another 15 people arriving before Christmas.

While the majority of refugees depend on support from the federal government, 128 refugees in New Brunswick were privately sponsored. They often integrate better and faster, he said.

 "And part of that is that all privately sponsored refugees have this community of support, whether its church groups or service clubs," he said. "And they all have their own social and professional networks."

With files from CBC Information Morning