January 19, 2016 7:04 pm
Updated: January 19, 2016 8:26 pm

Syrian families fill up Ottawa hotels as federal government pauses flow of refugees

WATCH: Canada is still working to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, but there have been glitches in the plans. The surge of refugees has overwhelmed at least two cities. Jacques Bourbeau explains.


Refugee settlement organizations in Ottawa and Vancouver have asked the federal government to stop sending Syrian refugees to their communities, because they have nowhere for them to live.

It’s a temporary pause of five days in Vancouver, and five-to-seven days in Ottawa. The problem is finding permanent housing for the Syrian families.

Although 700 government-sponsored refugees have arrived so far in B.C., only seven families have found permanent housing.

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READ MORE: 5-day moratorium on arrival of government-sponsored Syrian refugees in B.C. set to begin Tuesday

In Ottawa, there are currently about 400 people living in downtown hotels – and there’s no more room at the inn.

Basil Al-Zouwy moved from Dara with his wife and three young children, and is currently living in the Radisson hotel in downtown Ottawa. He says he is thankful to be in Canada and grateful for the help he has received.

But, it can be difficult to live in close quarters with three kids, he explained.

“Our kids, you know, always play,” he said, and they’re not able to run freely down the hallways of the hotel. “It’s not allowed. So they feel some pressure.”

He’s hoping to find a home for his family as soon as possible.

“I think the challenge is, the kids they want to be here, they want to learn English, they want to be part of Canada,” said Laurie Hinsperger, a volunteer with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, who was working at the hotel. “It’s just providing volunteers and activities for the kids to do, which is what we’re trying to set up right now. Also working with outside organizations to set up days where the kids can go somewhere else.”

Her group is arranging programs with the Boys and Girls Club and skating lessons to keep the families busy, she said.

“Kids they like to play, they like to do things, they like to learn. And the more stimulus they have, the more people they have to work with them, the more they’re going to excel.”

Hitting pause

“We have received requests to slow down arrivals in some communities, including Ottawa and Vancouver,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship in an emailed statement Monday evening.

“We are working with them to try to ease the strain they are currently experiencing, which includes pausing arrivals for a few days as we continue toward the goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees across Canada by the end of February. We are redirecting refugees to other centres during this time.”

Global News asked Tuesday morning if there were other cities that have also requested a slowdown, and has not yet received a response.

The pause will help give settlement agencies time to find suitable accommodations for families like Al-Souwy’s, said Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, an Ottawa-based refugee organization.

“It’s just the issue of having the new government-assisted refugees not moving out into housing as fast as we had expected,” she said.

“It’s really hard to find housing for families of five on the budgets that the government has given us.”

Although government-assisted refugees are provided with temporary housing, their permanent accommodations have to be covered by a monthly allowance from the federal government. And it’s not much – the amount is based on provincial social assistance rates. It can be difficult to find housing, particularly large housing, on a social assistance budget.

And they won’t be competing for social housing spaces, said Ottawa city councillor Diane Deans. Instead, they’re on the rental market – tough in both cities. In April 2015, Ottawa had a rental vacancy rate of 2.8 per cent, and Vancouver just 1.4, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The average rent on a two-bedroom apartment was $1,159 a month in Ottawa, and $1,345 in Vancouver.

Refugee 613 will be launching a housing initiative at the end of the week, said Taylor, asking for help from anyone who might have space available for rent.

With files from Bryan Mullan, Global News

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