When government cheques stop, what happens to Syrian refugees?

The weeks are counting down until the government cheques run out for the first wave of government-assisted Syrian refugees. The question looms: what happens next?

The crisis of the 13th month

Donated shoes lie at a sorting space before their distribution to an expected influx of Syrian refugees, in Toronto November 24, 2015. (REUTERS/Chris Helgren)

"We call it the crisis of the 13th month," Marwan Ismail says with a wry laugh as he explains why everyone he works with is panicking.

"In six weeks or less, the [federal] government cheques will stop for the first group of Syrian refugees who arrived a year ago this October."

Ismail, executive director of Polycultural Immigrant & Community Services in the Greater Toronto Area, explains that while many of the government assisted refugee (GAR) families have one a least one member who has been able to find paying work, many more are still dependent on government help while they continue to upgrade language skills and search for jobs.

"There are worries about what will happen when the year is up, for those who have not found work," explains Ismail. "They will need to complete the paperwork to switch to Ontario benefits. And what happens in the meantime? No one is sure how this transition is going to work. Will they be able to prove to landlords that they have income to cover the rent?" 

There are worries about what will happen when the year is up, for those who have not found work.- Marwan Ismail

And of course there are the myriad of other necessities like groceries, school supplies, and transit tickets. Settlement agencies like Polycultural Immigrant & Community Services and the Arab Community Centre help newcomers navigate the sometimes bewildering array of social services and help them connect to local housing, doctors, language classes, training, and work opportunities.

This is actually an advantage that government-assisted refugees have over those who have been privately-sponsored, argues Ismail. "I am always surprised by how many private sponsors don't know about all the support services that are available to help refugees in the early months," he said.

Settlement agencies help newcomers adjust to everything from learning about the Canadian banking system to how to behave in job interviews and how to update a resume to get an employer to take an interest in the first place. 

"You have to remember, people are building their lives here from scratch," says Ismail. 

"In many ways the government has done its job well in helping people begin their new lives in Canada. Now it is up to the community to do their part," says Ismail. 

The government gives some money to cover basic furniture like beds, a table, and chairs; but of course there is so much more that goes into creating a new home and building a new life in Canada. Community organizations and individual sponsors pitch in with donations of second hand furnishings and fundraise to buy needed household items and school supplies.

When Checkup went to meet Huda Bukhari at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto's headquarters in Etobicoke, Ont., her agency had just received a large donation of new shoes. In the reception room, on the third floor of a strip mall office building, a little girl was trying on a pair of pink trainers. "We decided the most efficient way was to offer shoes to everyone coming into the centre, so people have been seeing what fits and taking what they need," Bukhari explained.

Bukhari was born in the Sudan and says that she has experienced "first-hand what it is to be a newcomer in Canada." Today, she oversees a bustling outreach program headquartered in Etobicoke, with a team of settlement workers who together speak over 13 different languages.

This is much needed as most government sponsored refugees have little English and without it have almost no chance of getting the paid employment that will propel them on their way to full integration into Canadian life.

Language training and affordable housing: those are the biggest challenges.- Huda Bukhari

"Language training and affordable housing: those are the biggest challenges," says Bukhari. The public school system takes care of the children, where they quickly adapt at neighbourhood schools, she says, while the adults often have their own steep learning curve to climb.

Each family who comes to a settlement agency is paired with someone who will help them through the first months of learning a new language and culture. Often workers will accompany newcomers on their first journeys on public transit, show them how to buy tickets and how to transfer between buses and subway. 

Ismail explains that he was in Germany this past summer and he was not impressed with the progress that country was making as it struggles to cope with its 1.1 million refugees. 

"That was too much at once. No country can cope with that many people in one go. Our government has done an excellent job of taking in a good number of refugees that we can handle," he says, making the point that it's better to give good services to a smaller number of refugees than to take inadequate care of a larger number.

Another problem is the need to encourage newcomers "to spread out" says Ismail. There is a tendency for everyone from Syria to come to Montreal or Toronto and Mississauga because that's where a large community already is, he says. "But it's cheaper in terms of housing if you move further out of the city. And if you're a farmer and you move out to Kitchener than you have a good chance of getting a job as well as a house you can afford."

And when it comes to refugees finding jobs, Ismail is adamant that all Canadians have a part to play. "If you are a farmer and you need someone to pick cherries, then why not hire a refugee?" he asks. "If you need someone to clean your office or your house then why not hire a newcomer? These are jobs that don't require language skills. That they can do right away." 

In the meantime, there are language classes and skills upgrading for the adults and regular public school for the children.

"Those kids are our future engineers, doctors and writers," says Ismail. He feels that in all his years of working with immigration settlement the Syrian refugees have struck him as "the most humanitarian" of cases. "Almost every family coming has at least one family member with medical needs," he says explaining that setting up health cards and doctors visits is often a first priority in the first days after arrival. 

It leads right into the question we will be exploring on Cross Country Checkup this Sunday: "Are we giving newcomers enough support to build a new life in Canada?"  And that question, Bukhari and Ismail will argue, is something that extends beyond government support to communities across the country. Especially as we move towards the first crisis of the 13th month.


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