Metro Morning

Toronto nowhere near ready for refugees, citizenship judge says

Thousands of Syrian refugees will arrive in Toronto over the coming weeks. The federal government has promised details soon about how it will bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by year's end and where they will be housed.
Aris Babikian does not think Toronto is ready to accept the thousands of Syrian refugees the federal government has committed to bringing to Canada. (Supplied)

Thousands of Syrian refugees will arrive in Toronto over the coming weeks.

The federal government has promised details soon about how it will bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by year's end and where they will be housed. 

But how ready is Toronto?  That's the question Metro Morning is looking at in the week-long series City Of Sanctuary.

A retired citizenship judge who was once a refugee himself said that the logistical details of resettling thousands of Syrians are immense and Toronto is not close to being ready.

Aris Babikian grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and lived in Beirut. He came to Toronto 38 years ago when civil war broke out in Lebanon. As the head of the Armenian National Federation, he worked with the government to bring 5,000 Iraqi refugees here every year for five years. 

He said on a readiness scale of one to 10, Toronto is barely at two or three.

"We don't have any plans yet from the federal government," said Babikian. "With all the good intentions and compassion, we are still struggling with this issue."

For instance, Babikian said he went to meet with Lifeline Syria, one of the organizations helping refugees, and they don't even have an office yet.

Over the past three years, Babikian has helped hundreds of Syrians come to Canada.

At first, he said, refugees thought the crisis might be short-lived and they might be able to return. "But in the last three years, they gave up hope that the crisis would be resolved," he said.

Fulfilling basic needs

Babikian said there are steps to successful resettling. 

The first key struggle for new refugees to Canada is a financial one.

"Many have lost everything, coming with one or two suitcases," he said. "They have difficulty renting places — paying first and last months rent."

The next hurdle is finding a job. "They have no employment record here," he said. That extends to education. 

Most school-age refugees, from high school through to university, have lost a year or two and are having difficulties being accepted in university. And there is the problem of documentation. "Universities are asking for too many records for many refugees to provide," he said.

If those two challenges can be successfully navigated the next priority, according to Babikian, is furniture and basic household items like cutlery, pots and pans.

But resettling is more than finding homes and work, Babikian said. "They need psychological treatment because they have gone through so much trauma — in their cities and in the refugee camps. The treatment from local people in Jordan and Turkey, for example, was terrible," Babikian said.

Another challenge Babikian sees with Syrians coming to Canada now is that they are alone. Under different circumstances, refugees could join existing networks of family or friends. But the urgency here makes that impossible for most Syrians. 

"When you bring so many people to new culture, new country, new traditions, we'll have problems," he said. "But we have to plan as perfectly as possible. We need to minimize the strain and the anxiety as much as possible."


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