By Denise Leduc
With a new Prime Minister elected in 2015 came the promise of admitting 25 000 refugees to Canada. While the original target was to have these refugees settled in Canada by the end of the year, the deadline was extended to ensure the process was done properly. These delays, of course, came amidst backlash from conservative leaders like Saskatchewan Premier, Brad Wall. As more Syrian refugees now begin to arrive there are still citizens with many questions and concerns about the refugees’ futures in Canada.
When refugees and immigrants first arrive in Canada, settlement agencies like the Saskatoon Open Door Society (SODS) help with the integration. Julie Fleming-Juarez, Community Connections Team Leader states that we have actually been receiving refugees from Syria since November 2014. However, there is now a push to bring in many more, and with that comes increased media coverage and commentary. She expects most of the Syrian refugees will be arriving in January and February 2016. Since November 4 2015, Saskatchewan has received about 200 refugees from Syria, with hundreds more expected before the end of 2016.
When refugees arrive in Canada, their first challenge will be adjusting to the weather. Other initial challenges they will face will be linguistic and culture barriers, among other issues. Once they arrive refugees start with a very intensive six week basic settlement process. In this training they are given an orientation to aspects of Canadian life such as education, healthcare, rental responsibilities, banking and shopping. Newcomers are then ready to move on to a second process and here is where they will prepare themselves for work in Canada.
A study published in October 2015 finds that up to 85 percent of refugee claimants receive social assistance upon their arrival to Canada. Despite many myths circulating Fleming-Juarez claims government-assisted refugees do not receive more benefits than Canadians. Furthermore, privately sponsored refugees receive no government support. Recent stories have also attempted to correct this misunderstanding. With time, the rate of refugees receiving social assistance benefits declines considerably. Within four years 60-75 percent were no longer in receipt of social assistance. However, it’s important to note the percentage of refugees still receiving social assistance is higher than that of the general population. Still, social assistance claims by refugees make up only 1.9 percent-4.4 percent of the entire social assistance expenditures and are by no measure a burden on the Canadian government. Even with these supports Canadians must consider what improvements can be made so refugees who settle in Canada can integrate and successfully find employment.
Ashraf Mirmontahai, Manager of Employment Services with SODS, says “We have a proven record in our community of very successful people that came to Canada as refugees.” She tells me that in her experience when refugees come to Canada they are very motivated and they really want to work. However, the reality is they can face many obstacles in gaining employment at first. One of the biggest challenges they face in finding work is the language barrier. In 2014, of the refugees arriving in Canada from Syria only 46 percent reported knowing English or French, according to a report published by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Population Profile: Syrian Refugees by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Most jobs, even entry level positions require at least basic communication to understand health and safety, and for employees and supervisors to communicate. In one study, Syrians who have already resettled in other locations claim that communication has been one of the biggest barriers to finding employment. Another challenge new Canadians face is having their credentials recognized in Canada. Unfortunately, skilled workers often cannot start working in the jobs they are trained in without first updating their licenses in Canada. This usually requires training, school and testing which all takes time. According to Fleming-Juarez, not having Canadian work experience can also be a problem to finding that first job, although this is beginning to change.
Saskatoon Open Door Society anticipates that the Syrians arriving will be a very diverse group. Some will have high levels of education, while others will have less. Before the conflict in Syria a high priority was placed on literacy so 84 percent of the population is literate. The majority of workers in Syria were in the agriculture and construction sectors (PDF). SODS is expecting a mix of ages and believe a lot of the people arriving will be families. Fifty two percent of Syrian refugees are currently under the age of 18.
During the second part of the settlement process the needs will be diverse. Some people may be ready to start looking for work the moment they arrive, while others may need some support to make preparations they need to attach themselves to the labour market. Some of the services organizations like SODS provides are resume workshops, language classes, job fairs and enhanced job counselling to help newcomers discover how they can best be utilized in the Canadian workforce. The organization has worked hard to build good relationships with large and small businesses in the community. Currently they have approximately eighty employers who are working with them to fill gaps where there are labour shortages by connecting workers with jobs. According to Mirmontahai, individuals over forty often face the greatest challenges as they already have training and work experience but often have to start over in a new country from the beginning. On the other hand refugees who come here as youth have great success as they pick up the language quicker and have lots of support from the schools.
Fleming-Juarez, who has worked with Saskatoon Open Door Society since 1999, says that she has never seen the kind of backlash against refugees that she is currently seeing. She believes the backlash is stronger now because of the media and social media. She states, “The history of refugees settling in Saskatoon and Canada has been wonderful. They have only proven to be contributing members of our society and they go on to be successful citizens and our neighbours.” As Fleming-Juarez continues, “We do this all the time. We have refugees arrive almost daily, but they’re not in the media.”
Despite the backlash there has also been an outpouring of support from the community. Average citizens are stepping up and offering their support and wondering what they can do to help. Citizenship and Immigration Canada has provided information on their website on ways Canadians can help. Fleming-Juarez says SODS and similar organization across the country have many programs where citizens can volunteer to help refugees including mentoring programs and conversation circles. These programs are valuable in helping newcomers with their English skills so they can gain employment and more fully participate in Canadian society quicker.
“Refugees are a resilient group and they are used to working hard for what they have. They will often do the work other people do not want to do. A lot of them want to create a good future for their children and take on more than one job so they can start saving for their children’s education. They definitely don’t abuse the system, in fact they work hard to enhance it,” Fleming-Juarez says. She insists in her opinion one of the most important thing Canadians can do is simply be a good neighbour. “Being a good neighbour doesn’t take any extra time. It doesn’t take money. You can simply talk to them, welcome them and make them feel at home.”
Whatever position we take about the arrival of 25,000 refugees from Syria, they are coming, and coming soon. As citizens we have a choice on how we will react to their arrival. Will we be welcoming and supportive or will we complain and begrudge them? Will we lend a helping hand and a smile, or will we treat them with suspicion and hostility? Each of us has that choice to make for ourselves. One thing is for certain, agencies like the Saskatoon Open Door Society are instrumental in welcoming refugees to the province.