Language training a key barrier for refugees in Surrey

Click to play video: 'Syrian refugee working hard to learn English' Syrian refugee working hard to learn English
May 2016: Syrian refugee working hard to learn English – May 25, 2016

It’s been almost a year since Surrey opened its Refugee and Immigrant Welcome Centre, and the facility has already welcomed nearly 200 families.

And while newcomers are facing a multitude of challenges, including finding work and an affordable place to live, one issue looms above the rest: learning English.

LISTEN: Inside Surrey’s Refugee and Immigrant Welcome Centre

Kevin Theissen manages the centre, which offers some basic language courses, along with help translating documents, interviews, and medical appointments and services to help refugees integrate into society.

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“There are so many Arabic speaking people,” said Theissen.

READ MORE: B.C. pilot project looks to find jobs for Syrian refugees

In fact, Thiessen said the Guildford area where the centre is located is coming to be known as “Little Baghdad.”

Rough numbers show that about 4,000 refugees from Iraq are now living in Surrey.

Without a basic grasp of English, Thiessen said it’s tough for them to find jobs, or even a place to live.

“It’s one of the key challenges because that’s the challenge for many in the Lower Mainland right, not just newcomers. And so even if you can make the phone call and go visit a potential landlord yourself and communicate easily and even if you can do all that you still will find it difficult because they have a long list of applicants.”

WATCH: Syrian refugees start school in Surrey

Click to play video: 'Syrian refugees start school in Surrey' Syrian refugees start school in Surrey
Syrian refugees start school in Surrey – May 13, 2016

Since Canada began accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq amid the ongoing civil war, settlement groups in B.C. have consistently reported long wait times for English language training.

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CEO of the immigrant services group SUCCESS Queenie Choo said that two years ago, the wait list for classes in Metro Vancouver was around three to six months; but today, it can take up to a year.

“We have a bit more people on the waitlist than other years because of the level of newcomers and as well the influx of refugees,” said Choo.

READ MORE: Syrian refugees in B.C. actively looking for work, but a third live in emotional turmoil: report

She said there is a need for extra classes in Surrey, Vancouver, and Richmond.

“Currently, we have close to 2,000 people on the wait list.”

But according to Choo, thanks to recent funding from the B.C. government, they are looking to add 45 new classes in the coming months to help meet demand.

Alla was a refugee who arrived in Surrey two years ago from Sudan. She now works as a volunteer receptionist at the centre.

“It’s like my home here, my second home, because I came here as a refugee and I know… their struggles, so I just love coming here.”

She’s now studying social work at a community college.

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READ MORE: First day of school has special meaning for Syrian refugee students in Surrey

The federal government says that Canada has accepted more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since November of 2015, spread among 350 communities across the country.

More than a quarter of those refugees who move to B.C. are choosing Surrey as a home – more than any other municipality in B.C.

A report from the ISS last year found that about 17 per cent of Syrian refugees who had come to B.C. had found work, while another 64 per cent were actively looking.

It also found that 62 per cent of refugees had managed to find satisfactory housing.

~With files from Emily Lazatin

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