Syrian refugees face a new kind of uncertainty as federal allowance ends

The monthly federal stipend for the first wave of Syrian refugees comes to an end this month as they enter their second year in Canada — something a Toronto settlement volunteer says could leave the oldest with a gap in their income.

Teaching newcomers English will be critical to their long-term success in Canada, teacher says

The first wave of the roughly 5,200 Syrian refugees who arrived in the Greater Toronto Area in December 2015 will soon be without a federal living allowance. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The monthly federal stipend for the first wave of Syrian refugees comes to an end this month as they enter their second year in Canada — something a Toronto settlement volunteer says could leave the oldest of the newcomers with a gap in their income.

About half of the roughly 5,200 refugees who have settled in the Greater Toronto Area have been able to find work, Sam Jisri, the executive director of Syrian Active Volunteers, told CBC Toronto.

But those who are older report less confidence than their children and grandchildren in learning English, something that's proven to be a barrier to entering the workforce.

Sam Jisri, co-founder of Syrian Active Volunteers in Toronto, said he's most concerned about older refugees. (CBC News)

"They're not ready for their retirement plan in Canada and they will have no job, no income," he said. "Those are the ones I'm most worried about. There's a little bit of fear of Month 13."

It's an anniversary that will be marked with both celebration and anxiety, he says.

1 year later

The first full military planeload of Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto on Dec. 10, 2015, bearing 163 men, women and children. They were bundled into hats and parkas by waiting volunteers — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and, in some cases, family members who had arrived in the country before them.

Since then, Canada has welcomed more than 35,000 newcomers fleeing the violence in the Middle Eastern country, among them both privately-sponsored and government-assisted refugees.

There is a little bit of fear of Month 13.- Sam Jisri, Syrian Active Volunteers

There was a feeling of optimism at the time, both at the airport and in many of the news stories that followed.

"The Canadian public have done a marvellous job that is going to be recorded in history," Jisri said of the efforts.

Syrian refugee Osama and his baby daughter are shown as they arrived in December 2015 at Toronto's Pearson airport. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But he said the privately sponsored refugees have adjusted better to life in Canada than those who just had government sponsorships, because their sponsors created a sense of community and support. 

Volunteer groups like Jisri's tried to fill in the gap, providing translators, delivering meals and connecting the newcomers with the public employment services and language skills training. 

Syrian families received about $1,400 a month from the government as well as assistance in paying for and finding housing, health care, language classes and employment. Privately sponsored refugees received similar financial and practical help from the community groups and individuals who vouched for them.

And as that ends, Jisri predicts this month will be a busy one for volunteers.

​Social assistance

Most of the refugees in this province who have yet to find work may qualify for Ontario Works, the provincial assistance program — but some say they're uncertain about how to navigate the bureaucracy. 

A spokeswoman for Ontario Works said the province has been preparing for an increase in applications once the federal support ends. 

The provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services, which oversees the program, will also provide information in Arabic to refugees needing social assistance. The ministry is developing pamphlets and an introductory video "with basic information" about eligibility — and the government-sponsored refugees can expect to receive letters about the Ontario Works program as their federal living allowance ends, spokeswoman Kristen Tedesco wrote in an email.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum said the federal government will continue to fund language, education and training courses for Syrian refugees. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said it's not unusual that there are still swaths of newcomers without jobs.

"You don't integrate into Canadian society overnight — it takes time," the minister said. "So some will get jobs after one year and others will not and some will need continuing income support for a while until they get jobs. That's how it's always been and, in time, they will do well."

McCallum noted that refugees have historically integrated into the country's fabric.

Jisri said he is proof of that; he moved here 25 years ago from Syria. It took him two years, however, to find a job, largely because he was still learning English.

Learning English

English classes are probably the most critical element for helping the refugees integrate, second-language educator and volunteer Tina Aseffa told CBC News. ​While the federal government will continue to fund language classes, there are long wait lists for many of the workshops across the Greater Toronto Area and in other Canadian cities where refugees have settled.

It's partly why Aseffa teaches people English in their homes; it's also there that she can connect with parents who can't yet pay for child care in order to attend classes. 

Language teacher Tina Aseffa said learning English is critical to the integration of Syrian refugees in Toronto. (CBC News)

While Aseffa said the first month without the federal living allowance may be a difficult one, volunteers and other social programs are there to support the refugees during the transition.

If the federal government is looking for a place to spend money, she said, English-language classes will give them the biggest return on their investment.

Sense of belonging

It's something she's seen in the younger generation of Syrians who help their parents and grandparents to learn the new language and customs.

The early days of spring marked three months in Canada for Hanan Nanaa, the new season accompanied by the realization that the teen had begun to feel at home. She came here from Turkey last February with her three sisters, two brothers, parents and grandmother.

The Syrian refugee lives in Toronto and now speaks clear and confident English. She has made friends at school, and plans to study medicine as a way of eventually giving back to her homeland.

Hanan's integration was accelerated because of her immersion in English, Aseffa said. It's a story she says she hopes her elders and policymakers notice. 

"When I met some friends here, they made me feel safe and feel comfortable," the teenager told CBC News. "After that, I complete my journey here easier."

Hanan Nanaa came to Toronto from Turkey last February after fleeing Syria months before. The teenager goes to high school here and hopes to study medicine or pharmacology at university. (CBC News)


Laura Fraser

Senior writer

Laura Fraser is a senior writer and editor with CBC News and is based in Halifax. She writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at

With files from Devin Heroux and Alison Chiasson