For Syrian refugees, finding job should take back seat to learning English, say agencies

One of the first things the thousands of refugees arriving in Canada want to do when they get here is find a job, but settlement agencies say new arrivals should not rush to join the workforce but focus on learning English and getting accustomed to Canadian life first.

Many new arrivals eager to start working but should focus on honing communication and other basic skills 1st

Refugees arriving in Canada are eager to find work, but settlement agencies say they should get a good grasp on English first so they don't get trapped in low-wage jobs. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The Syrian refugees who have landed in Canada by the thousands over the past three months often use what little English they know to heap praise on their new country and talk about how anxious they are to get their new lives here under way.

That means finding a home, a school for their children and a job. But some settlement agencies say not all Syrian refugees should be so hasty to join the workforce. They want the refugees to spend a bit of time learning the language if they need to rather than jumping into the job market.

Josie Ditzio works with new arrivals at COSTI Immigrant Services, the official settlement organization in Toronto for government-assisted refugees. She encourages Syrian refugees to learn a little English first, then start applying for jobs to ensure they don't get left behind.

If youdon't acquire your language in the earlier time of arrival, then it's less likely youare to acquire it down the road.- Josie Ditzio, COSTI Immigrant Services

"History has shown us that with past waves of immigrants and refugees, if you don't acquire your language in the earlier time of arrival, then it's less likely you are to acquire it down the road," she said.

Ditzio says she has to remind the refugees there is no great rush to get a job. Government-sponsored refugees can receive up to a year of financial help, roughly equivalent to the amount Canadian welfare recipients receive. Private sponsors are supposed to have raised enough money to provide the same amount.

'When can I work?'

But the groups working with privately sponsored refugees are finding many of them say they don't want to be a burden and want to get to work as soon as possible.

Yervant Chopurian recently attended a job fair in Toronto organized by the Armenian community, which has sponsored some Armenian-Syrian refugees. 'I know the first year can be a little bit hard,' says the 24-year-old electrical engineer. (Jill English/CBC)

Ratna Omidvar is chair of Lifeline Syria, a group started last year to help people privately sponsored Syrian refugees. Her group sponsored a couple and their eight children just before Christmas. She says the father seemed to know just four English words, which he kept repeating, "When can I work?" 

Omidvar and her colleagues convinced him to take a few weeks of English classes, which started last week. She expects the man, who works in construction, to find a job in early spring.

"I want to make sure that when he gets to work … he has the basic English concepts of workplace health and safety," Omidvar said.

Unemployment rate high for 1st 5 years

But even Syrian refugees who are proficient in English know that finding work, especially work in their field, will be a challenge.

Yervant Chopurian counts himself lucky that he can already speak English well enough to get by in Canada. The 24-year-old electrical engineer arrived just under a month ago after living as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for four years.

Ratna Omidvar, centre left, heads Lifeline Syria, which helps settle privately sponsored refugees. She tries to convince new arrivals to hold off on getting a job and make sure they and their children are settled first and able to communicate and access all of the resources at their disposal. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

He has been shopping around his resume with no takers yet.

"I know the first year can be a little bit hard, but I'm looking forward to a better life, and Canada is the best place for that," he said.

For many, it's not just the first year that's hard. According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate for newcomers who have been here for fewer than five years is almost double what it is for people born in Canada. It's only after being here for 10 years that the unemployment rate for immigrants approaches that of the general population.


Ron Charles

CBC News

Ron Charles has been a general assignment reporter for CBC News since 1989, covering such diverse stories as the 1990 Oka Crisis, the 1998 Quebec ice storm and the 2008 global financial crisis. Before joining the CBC, Ron spent two years reporting on Montreal crime and courts for the Montreal Daily News.