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Syrian refugees' new lives in Canada are anything but easy

Shortfalls of the Canadian government's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in the span of a few months are become clear as many are still seriously struggling to make ends meet, eight months after the start of the program.

by Tamara Khandaker
Jun 17 2016, 7:25pm

Syrian refugees Rahaf, second left, and her brother Ramez, center, get new winter clothing upon arrival at Toronto's Pearson airport in February. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Amer Alhendawi, his wife and five kids live in a bug-infested two-bedroom apartment in Surrey, British Columbia, making ends meet on about $1,200 of social assistance, with the help of food banks and child tax benefits. While no longer haunted by the threat of his home and family being torn apart by war, Alhendawi is kept up at night by the thousands of dollars it cost to bring them over here, which he now has to repay the government. Alhendawi doesn't speak a word of English, and after 13 months in Canada, he's been unable to find work. And his story isn't unique.

"Every time I go, they say there is no chance and to come back in two to three months," said Alhendawi, speaking through an interpreter to a parliamentary committee studying the Syrian refugee resettlement program. "I'm not working, but how can I work if I don't know English to communicate?"

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally greeting the first planeload of refugees back in December, much has been made of his newly-elected Liberal government's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians — a goal that has not only been achieved, but as of the end of May, surpassed by over 2,500 people.

Related: My Escape From Syria: Europe or Die

There's been no lack of heartwarming stories of new beginnings, from a video of children experiencing tobogganing for the first time to the father and sons who were reunited after 10 years of separation. Most of the newcomers are government-sponsored meaning, unlike privately-sponsored immigrants, they rely on the government for financial support. Their first stop was a hotel or reception center.

"What you heard in the media, complaints against the government, that's untrue. They are personal opinions ... they do not represent us," a lawyer named Mohamed Alchebly told CBC News in January after reports emerged that some refugees wanted to return to the Middle East because they'd been stuck for weeks in Toronto hotels. "It's been excellent so far. We are comfortable, and we thank the government, the ministry and everybody." According to the government, 99 percent of government-sponsored Syrians now have a permanent home.

But finding somewhere to live is just one challenge facing the newcomers. And months into a massive resettlement effort, the scale of which had not been seen in decades in Canada and which cost the government $319-million in the first four months, shortfalls in the Liberal government's plan are becoming clear.

Stuck in overcrowded apartments, isolated by a severe language barrier, and unable to support themselves, the lives of many government-sponsored refugees stand in stark contrast to those joyful images of arrival. In the words of one settlement worker, the Trudeau government's ambitious plan to showcase the compassionate side of Canada has been "wonderful" in intent, but "terrible" in execution.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes the first planeload of Syrian refugees to Canada in December, 2015. Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

"It's out of control," Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, a member of the parliamentary committee studying the issue, told VICE News. "The government needs to think about the fact that this isn't a bunch of numbers on a scorecard for political gain. These are actual people, and we have a duty to help them integrate into Canada."

In May, MPs began hearing from various players in the process on a laundry list of issues, from the lack of interpreters at hospitals at certain hours of the day, to gaps in dental care under the interim federal refugee health care program, to employment counselling agencies competing with each other, preventing refugees from signing up for multiple agencies simultaneously.

"This is quite an obstacle for the refugee, and it creates frustration and anger. Many of them abandon the process completely and are on their own now, trying to find employment on their own," testified Aris Babikian, chair of the Levant Settlement Centre.

Loudest of all, however, have been calls for the government to address the shortage of affordable housing and access to language training.

For many, like Alhendawi, the two issues have been inextricably linked, with waiting lists for classes of up to two years hindering their ability to start working.

Related: Unsettled: Syrian Refugees in America

At the Vancouver Community College, for example, 800 students were on the waitlist for English-language courses, but thanks to funding cuts this year to their program, 220 ESL students who would've started in April were turned away, according to Karen Shortt of the college's faculty association.

"I try my best to learn English on the streets, through my friends, or through some acquaintances," said Alhendawi, adding that his wife, like many other refugee women, hasn't been able to because she stays at home with the kids. When he asked why there is no space in the classes, he was told it was due to the influx of Syrian refugees.

"At the moment, demand for language training classes is very high," said an emailed statement from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to VICE News. Locations with a high volume of clients who are refugees will be eligible for additional funding, the statement said.

The federally-funded classes are supposed to cover aspects of living in Canada, Canadian culture, civics, job search skills, as well as cross-cultural communication and cater to a range of abilities. Specialized courses like labor market language training, and occupation-specific language training for people who have experience or training in a specific field, are also available, according to IRCC.

"It's a very difficult situation. If any of us can't learn English, it will be very difficult for us to find a job," said Alhendawi, who receives $1,200 a month in assistance from the government. After rent and loan repayments, his family is left with just $200 for other expenses.

'It's a very difficult situation. If any of us can't learn English, it will be very difficult for us to find a job.'

"Families with high rents in BC are struggling just to pay the rent," Judy Villeneuve of the Surrey City Council testified. "They get an average for a family of four of about $750 for rent supplements, and then they have $400 for living costs, and they are expected to pay all of the other deals plus the kids' clothing."

Stories of landlords in Toronto gouging refugees are also common, according to Babikian. Some ask for rent one year in advance, even though that is against the law.

Refugees receive the same amount of money from the government as those on social assistance in the province they've settled in. That aid ends after 12 months, however, and if they have not found work by then, refugees can apply for social assistance as Alhendawi has done.

In contrast, in the US, federal assistance is limited to a one-time sum per refugee distributed over their first three months in the country, after which point the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement works through the states and NGOs to provide longer term cash and medical assistance, as well as social services.

While in the US, refugees are expected to start working almost immediately after arrival, refugees in Canada are encouraged to take advantage of the 12 months of financial support to first learn English before going out to look for work.

In Surrey, the line at the food bank has increased by 600 new refugees, and some parents are sending their teenage children to work to meet the obligation, Villeneuve said.

For more than 20 Syrian refugees in London, Ont., the blame lies not with the government, but with the city's main settlement agency, which they accuse of failing to take proper care of them.

They allege the hotel where many were housed was "understaffed and inadequate," that medical care wasn't provided on time, leaving kids "at the risk of death," that food was "unsuitable for human consumption," and that they were forced into apartments that were too small without any input on location.

"We tried to please. We listened to any issues. We always do," Valy Marochko, director of the Cross Cultural Learner Centre, told the London Free Press.

He countered that some people didn't like the food, offered by a Middle Eastern restaurant in London, because it was "Canadian Middle Eastern," that access to health care was a couple of blocks away, and that housing was limited with so many people arriving at once.

"We were helping 1,000 people. If we have two per cent that are not happy, I'm really sorry for that, of course," Marochko told the newspaper.

But in some unique cases, like that of Ilyana Alsarraj, being unable to find an affordable home and being forced to live with other families in the same situation has created exactly the kind of toxic environment she was hoping to escape.

Alsarraj, a refugee from Lebanon, alleged she was beaten and raped as a child in Syria, unwelcome in her mother's home in Lebanon, and in and out of homelessness for years while coming to terms with her identity in a country that imprisons people for homosexual acts. The 21-year-old hoped for a fresh start in Canada.

But a month into her journey, she said transphobic taunts from other refugees have made living at the COSTI reception center in Toronto unbearable for her. She can only afford to pay rent if she splits the cost with a roommate, and no one she knows is willing to live with her.

"If I knew I'd be staying in a house like this, I'd have stayed in Lebanon. I wouldn't come here," she said in an interview. "This was the last hope in my life."

'If I knew I'd be staying in a house like this, I'd have stayed in Lebanon. I wouldn't come here.'

Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, which runs the centre Alsarraj has been staying in and has settled 1,800 Syrians since December, told VICE News it's taken an average of five and a half weeks to move newcomers from temporary accommodations into their own homes, but that the rental costs take up more than half of their income.

"It is clear from COSTI's broader housing services that the availability of affordable housing is a challenge for all Canadians of limited economic means. The Syrian refugee project has focused the lens on how serious a problem this is," Calla testified.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk

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