Syrian refugees bump N.S. population to record high — but will they stay?

The arrival of 1,475 Syrian Nova Scotians tipped the province above an important mark in population growth last year. But research suggests those gains could start slipping away if those newcomers cannot develop adequate support networks.

Syrian families bump population to all-time high, but gains could be lost without proper supports

Rouida Khalaf and Mohamad Alsaeid at their family dinner table. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Instead of a bouquet of flowers, Rouida Khalaf arranges lettuce leaves in a vase, poking skewers through cherry tomatoes so they look like rosebuds.

She and her daughter had also spent hours hand-rolling two heaping platters of glistening, stuffed grape leaves, which they set on a long table loaded with other Syrian delicacies. 

It was important to Khalaf to feed the guests from CBC at her Halifax home. The table spoke of a family, which includes six children, eager to share their happiness with others.

It was all so different 16 months ago.

"When we left Syria, we left it in a state of war. All our morales were really very degraded," Khalaf said through an interpreter. Now she feels "stable and settled."

"I found my life right here," she said.

Khalaf and her family are among the 1,475 Syrian refugees who helped push Nova Scotia's population to an all-time high last year of 947,284 people.

"The Syrian cohort alone actually changed the trajectory of population growth in the province to a positive gain, rather than a loss of population," said Dalhousie University sociologist Howard Ramos.

Dalhousie University's Howard Ramos. (CBC)

The question now: How many will stay?

Research suggests those gains could start slipping away if newcomers cannot develop adequate support networks.

A University of Ottawa study that analyzed how recently arrived refugees move around Canada found the Atlantic region was the biggest loser. According to the study, approximately 14,300 refugees left the region from 2000 to 2013, many to Ontario or Alberta.

"Compared to other immigrants, refugees struggle more with local labour market conditions, scarcity of jobs and longer spells of unemployment," the paper said.

That's not the case with Khalaf and her husband, Mohamad Alsaeid. They have both found work in Nova Scotia, thanks in part to a course called Bridges to Construction, which is designed to help refugees learn the English needed in the construction industry and help them find jobs.

Alsaeid began working for Dexter Construction. Khalaf also started in the construction industry but later changed jobs; she now works for Killam Properties as a building superintendent.

The Alsaid family jokes around on their front steps. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Khalaf said she was proud to be the only woman in a course of 20 men — and though some of the men tried to discourage her, she continued.

"I persevered. And more than that, I was more successful than they were," she said.

The family left the Syrian city of Homs to flee the civil war and landed in Jordan before they moved to Canada.

"God has been very generous with us," Alsaeid said through an interpreter. "First, we are very comfortable. Second, all my family is near me. And third thing, I found work. I am employed now, so thank God, we are very comfortable."

Gerry Mills, of Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said retention numbers have improved. Two decades ago, just 38 per cent of newcomers stayed in the province. Now, she said, it's around 75 per cent. She knows of only two Syrian families that have left.

Bringing in a large group of people from a common background at the same time may act as its own type of retention strategy, she said, as they are more likely to develop their own community.

Immigration Minister Lena Diab's top priority is to bring as many new immigrants into Nova Scotia as possible. (CBC)

Immigration Minister Lena Diab's main priority can be spelled out in one sentence: Bring as many people as possible into Nova Scotia, and make sure they stay.

The Immigration Department has slightly raised its funding for services such as language training and employment support to $6.4 million. Last year, it also worked with the Department of Education and school boards to increase English-language help in schools.

"We worked a lot in Nova Scotia. We knew this was coming," Diab said of the Syrian refugee influx, which began in late 2015.

"We realized something was going to happen and a number were going to come. We didn't realize how many until really December, January, months later. But we put a co-ordination team together with many of our players." 

Rouida Khalaf says she is proud she was the only woman in an English class of 20 men. (CBC)

Those who work in immigration and settlement say some examples of new support include two Arabic-speaking caseworkers hired by the Department of Community Services. ISANS has added 25 more English classes and increased child-care during those classes.

Measures like opening Halifax recreation programs to refugees for free for the first year made it much easier for them to build contacts and integrate, Mills said.

She is also encouraged that organizations that don't usually work in settlement have started to ask how they can help newcomers.

"It's been a wonderful thing to watch to see other people, other organizations take responsibility for their part. And that's helped our community in many different ways, I think," she said.

As for the Alsaeid-Khalaf family, they like Nova Scotia and intend to stay. Khalaf said there is one thing she hopes other Canadians come to understand about her family.

"I really hope that this word 'refugees' or 'immigrants' is deleted, removed," she said. "Because I feel as if I was born here."

Interpreter: Lina Arafeh