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The Syrian Refugee Crisis Highlights the Maritimes’ Immigration Problem

Few immigrants want to head east of Montreal, and that's a problem for the economically distressed provinces there. But is the Maritimes actually that welcoming to Come-From-Aways?

by Julia Wright
Feb 16 2016, 5:31pm


Taken nearby a church at Queens, Prince Edward Island (Photo via Flickr user Arnaud Abadie)

The Maritimes are desperate to attract new immigrants: understandable, given recent hand-wringing over the region's alleged death spiral and imminent economic ruin. Growth is such a priority for these amazing, shrinking provinces that former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna recently suggested all new immigrants to Canada be forced—yes, forced—to start off in the Maritimes. "Critics will question why we should bring people to areas of high unemployment," writes McKenna, who himself moved years ago from New Brunswick to Toronto. "But that is precisely where immigrants are needed. We need their entrepreneurship, their worldliness, their drive, their consumption, and even their desperation."


If it's desperation the region needs, the 25,000 Syrian refugees Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to identify and resettle in Canada in 2015 definitely fit the bill. They are some of the world's most marginalized people, in many cases having lived through a brutal trifecta of civil unrest, violence, and abuse. And, since the start of winter 2015, thousands are being routed to Nova Scotia, PEI, and New Brunswick. This sort of mass arrival is highly unusual for the area, to say the least. Apart from the far North, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI have the lowest proportion of foreign-born residents in Canada. Only about five percent of people living in Atlantic Canada were born in another country. The Canadian average is 22 percent. In Toronto it's nearly 50 percent.

Gerry Mills is the director of ISANS, the largest immigrant-serving agency in Atlantic Canada. In 27 years, she says she hasn't seen anything like the recent influx of Syrians since Operation PARASOL assisted with the refugee crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s. This effort is still "a very different process," she says, with immigrants sent first to Toronto and Montreal, then rerouted to the East Coast. Most are families with several kids under 13. Until they're connected with suitable permanent housing, they stay in hotels, sometimes under temporarily cramped conditions.

"It's a massive, massive operation," says Mills. "It's in the winter, which has its challenges. We have these nor'easters here, and the weather affects travel plans and moving people in. In January, we were supposed to be moving 110 people out [of the hotel] and we had a snowstorm, and roads weren't cleared and delivery trucks couldn't get in. But we're coping and managing really well."

"At the beginning of January, it was overwhelming," says Craig Mackie, Executive Director of the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada, the only association that exists to assist new Islanders. In the first week of February, the intake was in a lull—but 25 to 40 more Syrians are expected to arrive before the end of the month. "Normally, we would be serving over 1,000 immigrants every year, but when they're all coming in at once, and still we have our regular intake of non-Syrian refugees—well, it's busy." When Syrians first started arriving, agencies often received little notice as to when, or how many, families were arriving, leaving volunteers and organizers scrambling to meet their needs.

The eerily picturesque Maritimes town of Saint John, New Brunswick (Photo via Flickr user Jamie McCaffrey)

While the process has become more streamlined, connecting newcomers with English classes—a crucial first step toward getting jobs and settling in—can also present challenges.

"We were already at capacity for English language programs, with 150 students a day before the Syrians arrived," says Saint John YMCA Executive Director Shilo Boucher. "Now we have 237 new people who need classes and childcare."

"We don't think it's going to slow down. Maybe we won't get as many as in the past two months, but we're expecting 250 more to arrive in 2016."

Despite the crazy logistics, the overwhelming feeling among newly-minted Maritimers appears to be one of amazement and relief to be here. Rozam Abazed, 24, arrived in Saint John in late January with her husband, three-year-old son, and ten-month-old twins. She and her sister Rehem, 28, were forced to flee Syria for Jordan during the Siege of Daraa in March 2015.

"It is very, very difficult time that I had," said Rozam, speaking through an Arabic interpreter. "There was no milk for the babies: they had to drink only sugar water. There were no diapers. No one helped, no one offered us anything. My husband was not permitted to work. My sister and I were separated in different cities."

"Here, the diapers, the milk—everything is offered. Everything is easy and good."

Rehem, who arrived in Saint John a week after her sister, is immensely grateful for everything her family has received. "The people here are different than in Jordan," she says "They are welcoming."

"In Jordan, we were in a camp with only one mattress, for my kids: I slept on the ground," says Rozam. "My son's dream is to be a firefighter or a surgeon, because he saw fires, and some people without their hands and legs. He dreams that he will fix them."

"Here, they take care of everything: furniture, anything we want. Anything is available."

The sisters were reunited in Saint John. Recently, they moved into apartments on the same street. But Rozam starts to cry when she thinks about her family still in Jordan. "We are happy to live here," says says. "We wish our parents and brothers were here." Asked where they see themselves 5 years from now, both enthusiastically say they want to stay in Saint John. They also hope they, and their husbands, will find work in their fields—a wish which could prove surprisingly tricky to fulfill.

The hardest parts of life in Canada—learning English, finding jobs, getting kids adjusted to school, gaining permanent resident status—may come later for many recent Syrian immigrants. For now, organizations like the Saint John YMCA urgently need local volunteers on their welcome teams, helping with the immediate needs of housing, groceries, and furniture. It's an intense six-week commitment, according to Saint John volunteer Holly McKay.

"We probably spend almost every night with them," she says. "Other people in our group are there every day to help them get to classes and appointments. There's a lot to do."

But, McKay says, "they have a whole team looking out for them. They're happy. They see us coming consistently, and they're excited to see us."

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be there for someone like that," says volunteer Trisha Wright-Belanger. "You think that one person can't make a difference, but you can."

But despite these expressions of small-town friendliness and hospitality, not everyone's feeling the love. The white-bread conservatism of the aging population runs deep: it's a common complaint that influxes of new immigrants steal jobs away from born-and-raised Maritimers.

If only it were that easy. In close-knit communities where who you know (or are related to) regularly trumps both education and experience even if you aren't a CFA, it's hard to imagine the disadvantage at which many of the newest arrivals find themselves with zero connections and limited English or French. It's not hard to see why more than 70 percent of recent immigrants to Canada choose to live in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, but make up just 3.7 percent of the total population in Atlantic Canada.

Whatever the answer to the Maritimes' population issue, it's probably not a regionally-restricted visa program à la Frank McKenna. "As a Nova Scotian, as a Canadian, I don't want to be part of that," says Gerry Mills. "I would never want to capitalize on anyone's desperation. It's up to provincial governments, communities, and employers to make the conditions good enough that people want to come, and want to stay."

She points to the growing Bhutanese community in Nova Scotia as an example of the region successfully retaining newcomers without forcing anyone's hand.

"We received 250 Bhutanese in the past few years: almost none have left. We ask, 'Why did they stay?' And the answer is that they came in a big group. Before this influx, we had a small Syrian community in Nova Scotia—a couple of hundred, maybe. Now, we've something like 2,000, including privately-sponsored refugees. So this is an opportunity for us to help build another community."

"We need to help [Maritimers] understand the culture [the refugees] are coming from so that the people here feel comfortable interacting with them," says Shilo Boucher. "Everybody has this fear that they're not doing the right thing, or that they're insulting them. But you need to learn how to interact, not just ignore them."

"The more people talk about it, the less scary it gets. It doesn't matter where any of us are from. We all have the same fears, hopes, and dreams."

"When you're from here," says Boucher, "it's different than when you're not from here. We're known as this great, nice place—but we need to actually show that."

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