A new report released by the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC) suggests Syrian refugees who have settled in British Columbia since last year are actively looking for work, but are sometimes in a fragile emotional state that makes it harder to integrate into their new surroundings.
As of Nov. 27, over 35,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada; 2,100 government-assisted Syrian refugees settled in B.C. In addition, as of Aug. 31, 424 privately sponsored Syrian refugees have settled in over fifty communities throughout the province.
The report found that 17 per cent of the Syrian refugees who are now calling B.C. home are employed on a full-time or part-time basis.
Most of the jobs are in manufacturing, construction and trade industries, but also in food, retail and hospitality.
Sixty four per cent of those who are not working are actively looking for work, and 76 per cent of Syrian government-assisted refugees are currently attending a federally-funded adult English language class.
While employment numbers may seem low, Chris Friesen with ISSofBC says they are higher than expected.
“Between employment data and the number of people enrolled in language classes, we have really strong indicators of both social and economic integration,” Friesen said. “Against some horrific life experiences, fleeing the civil war, spending years in refugee camps, you’ve got people who are learning a brand new language and somehow managing to find employment and begin to stand on their own two feet. I think it is an indicator of tremendous resilience and drive.”
However, about 66 per cent of Syrian refugees in B.C. reported that they regularly use the food bank.
Friesen says it’s not surprising given the income support rates for British Columbians, refugees included.
“It means that in order to augment your basic needs, you have to access the food bank,” said Friesen. “Unfortunately, it’s another testament to the fact that, by and large, we have now institutionalized poverty, so whether it is a low-income Canadian, senior or a new-comer refugee, the increased use of food banks is part of that reality.”
Sixty two per cent of survey respondents reported that their housing is comfortable for their family. Numbers show a great majority of them settled in Surrey, followed by Coquitlam, Burnaby and Vancouver.
Friesen says many of the families they are now housing have previously lived in refugee camps or less than sub-standard dwellings.
“The fact that they have found permanent housing in the most expensive city in the world and are satisfied with it is a huge testament to the support of the public, whether it is developers, landlords or your average family that reached out to provide support when support was needed.”
Friesen says they received numerous offers of support from British Columbians in the last year. Last November, when ISSofBC made a call for help at the height of the refugee crisis, Friesen says nearly 6,000 people signed up to host refugees or provide them with employment.
“All strong indicators of how the community was received and the welcome and support the public provided,” Friesen said.
However, Friesen says the need for permanent housing is still very real as more refugees arrive. ISSofBC is expecting another 300 will arrive before the end of the year.
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Currently, the society has four temporary housing sites open to accommodate the newcomers, including 56 Syrian families and 11 refugee families from other countries.
“We are trying to move them out before the holidays, if possible,” said Friesen, adding the average length of stay for refugee families in their temporary housing facilities is 23 nights, which is an improvement over earlier this year when it was as long as three months.
One statistic that stands out for Friesen in the report is the emotional health of the refugee families.
Sixteen per cent say that, overall, their family members felt depressed and 14 per cent reported as feeling sad.
Treating mental illness and anger issues, especially after living through the ongoing civil war, was identified as a priority. The report also suggests that the ability to fully rebuild the lives of refugees in Canada was tempered by the ongoing concern about the well-being of their family abroad.
Almost 74 per cent indicated that they had immediate family members that they wanted to be reunited with in Canada.
Friesen says there is no systematic support currently in place for those who are in need of emotional help and Canada needs to make great strides in this respect.
He says in Australia, for example, there is a trauma program that’s part of the government’s refugee settlement effort.
“This is a significant gap,” Friesen said. “If Canada continues to select refugees on the basis of vulnerability as referred by the United Nations, there is a small number [of refugees] that would benefit from a short-term consultation with a registered clinical counsellor. They have to be able to appropriately address the trauma that they have experienced.”
Friesen says it impacts the ability of refugees to learn a new language, parent their children, look for work and retain employment.
“What many families have witnessed is unconscionable to an average Canadian,” he said. “We watch it from a distance on the news, but to actually see your family members killed and your home bombed is something that’s hard for us to comprehend.”
Despite that, Friesen says more than 85 per cent of the Syrian refugees they polled simply wanted to say “thank you” in an open-ended last question on the survey, where refugees could state anything.
The statistics highlighted in the report were obtained by two separate consultation initiatives that polled sixty members of the Syrian refugee youth between the ages of 15 and 24-years old and, in a telephone survey, 395 government-assisted refugee heads-of-household who had arrived between Nov. 4, 2015 and Feb. 28, 2016.