The complicated kindness of befriending a refugee

Bringing refugees to Canada was the easy part, writes Ahmed Najdat. But Canada is struggling to get them settled.
The Sirhan family arriving at their new home on Haida Gwaii, B.C. (Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii/Facebook)

Over the past year, more than 33,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. While the figure represents an enormous success for the Trudeau government, whose revised refugee target promised to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February 2016, it also signals a titanic challenge ahead: that of the resettling phase.

As that phase unfolds, the enduring question is whether we are doing enough to ensure the steady integration of those who have left their homes behind in search of a safe haven.

With Syrian refugees arriving in such large numbers, Canada is relying heavily on volunteers to help families navigate the challenges ahead. For most refugees, volunteers are the first Canadians they meet outside of government offices and settlement workers' cubicles.

That's wonderful - until it isn't.

Separation anxiety

I worked as a volunteer in Vancouver and Burnaby, B.C. for about a year, acting as a translator, occasional driver and eventual friend and confidant. The process, as I observed it, was that settlement agencies would place volunteers with refugee families and tell them to offer assistance, but volunteers would receive very little instruction on what, exactly, to do. Indeed, most volunteers are given no professional training, even though they are dealing with extremely vulnerable people.

Most refugees come from highly populated neighbourhoods where they have plenty of family and friends. When they arrive in Canada they suddenly find themselves in quiet neighbourhoods surrounded by people who cannot communicate with them — that is, until the volunteer shows up at their doorstep, representing hope.

That volunteer will become the most important person in a refugee family's life, which can make it extremely difficult when the volunteer moves on, as I did when I had to leave B.C. and return to Ontario after I finished school. Refugees have already left so many loved ones behind, and eventually they will lose their new friend, too.

That separation can be devastating in part because refugees rely heavily on volunteers to communicate for them, which just emphasizes how important it is that newcomers have access to English lessons. This summer, however, Syrian refugees who were enrolled in English classes in Toronto were told that classes were cancelled due to insufficient government funding. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, there were over 800 new immigrants on waiting lists for language classes.

According to the government's June update, only $32.6 million in settlement funds were actually spent in 2015-2016, from a budget of $377 million. It is unclear why the money was there but not spent, especially as settlement agencies complained of lack of funding. Now, the government is promising to take in more refugees — an undetermined number Yazidi refugees within the next few months — even while existing integration problems linger.

One-year window

The Canadian government will financially support Syrian refugee families for their first 12 months in Canada, after which time it is assumed that refugees will have adjusted and found a source of income. Unfortunately, that's not often the case, and indeed, the most recent available Immigration Department data showed that in 2009, 49 per cent of government-sponsored refugees were collecting welfare. If no change takes place, it is very likely that Syrian refugees received in the last year will follow suit, especially if many still don't have access to English-language classes.

When Canada took a pledge to bring Syrian refugees here, the whole world stood in admiration. But bringing them here was the easy part; helping them to thrive as new Canadians has proven much more difficult. Until the Trudeau government figures out how to properly resettle its 33,000 new arrivals, the world should probably hold its applause.

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ahmed Najdat is an Iraqi-Canadian multimedia journalist and filmmaker. Ahmed is passionate about uncovering stories among marginalized communities.


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