N.S. association calls for federal, provincial support of refugee sponsorship program

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WATCH: Nova Scotia has welcomed more newcomers this year than in any previous year and now ISANS is calling for funding support. Aya Al-Hakim has more – Sep 20, 2019

Every day, newcomers and staff pass through the doors of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) at Bayers Road, where they are greeted by Lina Arafeh, the association’s smiling receptionist.

She’s one of the many immigrants and refugees who are choosing to live in Nova Scotia, and that is becoming a growing trend. According to the province, immigration continues to rise.

READ MORE: Canada is boosting immigration — here’s why

So far in 2019, the number of new permanent residents in Nova Scotia has become higher than it was during the same period last year.

According to a media release from the province in August, Nova Scotia has welcomed 3,393 new residents so far this year in comparison with last year’s 2,965 new permanent residents.

Moreover, a total of 5,970 new permanent residents arrived in 2018 — the most ever. More than 67 per cent were approved through provincial programs and the Atlantic Immigration Pilot.

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Arafeh was sponsored through ISAN’s private refugee sponsorship program, which is funded by both the provincial and federal governments.

When war broke out in Syria, Arafeh moved to Turkey in 2012, hoping to leave before things got worse in Aleppo, her hometown.

In Turkey, she was unexpectedly offered the chance to move to Canada.

“My friend who lived in Canada asked if I wanted to move to Halifax, and I immediately said yes so she privately sponsored me and I came here with my children — the triplets and my youngest one,” said Arafeh, who has been employed by ISANS since 2018.

Lina Arafeh. Clancy Waite/ISANS

“When we arrived to Canada, we made an oath to ourselves that we want to work very hard, my kids and myself, to pay Canada back for being so generous to us,” she added.

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Since then, Arafeh has become a certified interpreter and translator, and her kids have all been working hard at school and university.

“Now, it’s time for us to prepare our papers for citizenship, which is so exciting,” said Arafeh, who has been supported by ISANS.

Finding support at ISANS

ISANS is one of many organizations that have signed sponsorship agreements with the government of Canada to help support refugees when they resettle. These organizations are called sponsorship agreement holders.

As a sponsorship agreement holder, ISANS currently has 98 allocated spots for individuals to privately sponsor refugees, but this year, the organization has received an overwhelming response to sponsor almost 800 refugees. This is eight times as many sponsorship spots as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC ) has allocated to ISANS.

Jennifer Watts, CEO of ISANS, said the increasing number of people and groups looking to access the program isn’t surprising since more people are choosing to settle in Nova Scotia.

Jennifer Watts, ISANS CEO. Clancy Waite/ISANS

She also said the federal government has been increasing the number of allocated spots by approximately 15 or 20 over the last few years to accommodate resettlement growth.

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“We are seeing a slow incremental increase [of spots], but certainly, in the area of private sponsorship because it is so important around family reunification,” Watts said.
“There is a very strong need and a strong desire as more refugees settle here [to sponsor their family members]. It gives them a peace of mind.”

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But ISANS’ private refugee sponsorship program isn’t the only service being impacted by the increase in immigration to the province.

Watts said the organization is also seeing a growing number of people using ISANS resources, such as employment and English as a Second Language services.

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“We can always use more money but … we have incredible staff here that monitor any wait lists that may be developing and are very good at adapting programs and figuring out the needs of the labour market,” Watts said.

Calling for leaders to support immigration

In light of the October election, Watts hopes the federal government will continue to financially support all programs, including the private refugee sponsorship program.

“I think what’s important for our leaders to understand is that immigration has a very pivotal role in our country. It’s not an abnormal thing. It’s a very normal process in terms of our history and our current situation,” said Watts.

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“What we would like to see is support and increasing funding because although there may be an investment in the beginning, we absolutely know, in the long term, the impact [these programs will have] that will benefit Canada.”
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In particular, Watts sees a need to better support the refugee sponsorship program.

“Refugee and family reunifications is very key, a need that we have identified, that we see in terms of response. I think what it does for people is confirm when they come here how important we understand the family context,” she said.

The NDP, Liberal and Conservatives parties have all expressed that family reunification will be one of their main priorities, according to each of the party’s website.

However, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has recently said that the party want to reduce the number of immigrants coming to Canada, but he’s not being specific about how many he wants to bring in.

‘If you’re working, you’re happy’

Arafeh says that as a privately-sponsored refugee, she feels very lucky because she benefited a lot from all that ISANS had to offer.

“Once you’re an intake, you get your bus pass, your Canada Games Centre pass and even get help registering your kids at school,” Arafeh said.

But ISANS’s employment service is what Arafeh says she benefited from the most and feels very grateful towards.

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“I think employment is the backbone of everybody’s happiness. If you’re working, you’re happy. If you’re not working, it’s not good for your psyche, believe me,” she said.

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Provincial Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab said the province will continue to make immigration a priority.

“Evidence has shown that we have a lot of jobs that need to be filled, and we are not able to find those people in the province or in Canada,” said Diab.

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Some of the jobs that have the greatest need to be filled are in the continuing care and health care sectors.

As someone who continues to access ISANS programs, Arafeh hopes the party leaders in the federal election will also show their support for immigration.

“We look at the short-term picture and we think we don’t like immigrants because they are hard to handle, hard to teach, and the difference in cultures is very difficult to deal with. But in the long run, I promise you they will be good and nothing but good. They need time to adjust,” Arafeh said.

“Tolerance is key really. But the rewards are big.”