Monday, August 19, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


For some refugees in Surrey, integration is a bumpy road

Ghada has a lot of problems. The 39-year-old Syrian refugee arrived in Surrey last June, forced to leave her husband…


Ghada has a lot of problems. The 39-year-old Syrian refugee arrived in Surrey last June, forced to leave her husband behind, with three young children in tow. She has never had to be the breadwinner or the only adult managing a family.

But those aren’t her biggest problems since she arrived in Canada.

The main stumbling block is that becoming Canadian has proven to be much harder than Ghada thought it would be, in spite of her best efforts.

Her integration experience has proven to have multiple challenges.

Enrolling in English classes has taken her several months due to the long wait list. Moving to a different neighbourhood and away from the Surrey enclave of new immigrants is proving to be hard since her English is not good. And, although she’s trying, at least one of her kids is balking at this new life.

Her story of struggle has been a recurring one of many people escaping conflict and leaving family members behind as gaps in Canada’s services make integration more difficult.

Ghada’s diary, writing her scattered feelings and thoughts. Nov. 17, 2015.
Ghada’s diary with her feelings and thoughts from November 2015.

Recent statistics by Immigrant Services Society of B.C. showed that 220 government-assisted refugees came to B.C. from July to September. But Citizenship and Immigration Canada does not provide statistics for how many privately sponsored refugees there are. Service providers were left to guesstimate the numbers to be able to provide services for everyone. This creates many issues that contribute greatly to the lack of integration.

The number of refugees requiring services, especially English classes, has swamped settlement services in Surrey. Since they never got accurate numbers on the refugees likely to be arriving, settlement services were left scrambling to hire teachers and find classrooms as the numbers kept going up.

The Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada program (LINC) has been operating on high, running mornings, afternoons and evenings.  As a result, Ghada, who speaks only Arabic for now, has been waitlisted for three months.  “Language makes me foreign. I feel left out because I still do not speak English very well.”

That delay means that it will take much longer for refugees like Ghada to get a decent job, say experts.

That too, slows down integration. Caroline Dailly, ISSofBC’s refugee-assistance program manager, says that newcomers who don’t learn English quickly enough get trapped in survival jobs.

Aileen Murphy, a senior social planner at the City of Surrey, says,  “For all of us, being part of the workforce is the place you meet people, particularly out of your own community. People want to be part of a country and contribute and participate” Aileen Murphy explains.

Ghada lives in Guildford, one of Surrey’s well-known refugee hubs. Newcomers settling in ethnically concentrated areas have access to a support system; however, it poses integration challenges on the long run.

“It made me less homesick to live in this neighbourhood, but now I feel like I need to move out. I still do not speak English very well and can’t find a more affordable place”.

The City of Surrey has taken most the refugees due to its affordability.
Surrey city hall. The City of Surrey has taken large number of refugees due to its affordability.

Affordable housing is another issue. ISSofBC is the sole organization responsible for finding housing for newcomers.

From July to September, it housed 80 per cent of its clients in metro Vancouver.

“There is no national affordable housing strategy,” Dailly points out, refugees and the homeless suffer the most because it is hard to afford paying rent when living in expensive cities.

“RAP allowance is based on the provincial welfare allowance. The federal government will not increase any payments if the provincial government does not.”

Providing enough affordable housing units for all refugees advances their ability to move to different communities and worry less about maintaining the rent.

With the federal government promising to settle in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year, these problems are likely to affect the new wave of refugees.

But even if language classes, housing and work problems were all solved, integration can be hampered by kids withdrawing from getting used to the new environment, despite all efforts to do so.

Back in Surrey, two of Ghada’s children have already settled in school and are doing well. Her middle child has been the one affected by the whole experience.

“His teacher tells me that he’s always quiet, he doesn’t speak in class, does not participate.” The 12-year-old asks for his dad every time, not wanting to do anything until he is home.