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Study on the Steps Being Taken to Facilitate the Integration of Newly-Arrived Syrian Refugees and to Address the Challenges They are Facing

Study on the Steps Being Taken to Facilitate the Integration of Newly-Arrived Syrian Refugees and to Address the Challenges They are Facing

Study on the Steps Being Taken to Facilitate the Integration of Newly-Arrived Syrian Refugees and to Address the Challenges They are Facing

Study on the Steps Being Taken to Facilitate the Integration of Newly-Arrived Syrian Refugees and to Address the Challenges They are Facing

Published on 8 February 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Jim Munson

Hon. Jim Munson:

Honourable senators, a little more than a year ago we welcomed the first influx of our new friends, our new neighbours who live down the street from us now, and that is the 25,000 Syrian refugees and their resettlement in Canada.

Keeping this promise has been described as a “national project.” Its success to date is a testament to the commitment of thousands of Canadians, and of course hard-working public servants, during that time of quick integration into Canadian society.

As Chair of the Human Rights Committee, it is my pleasure today to talk about the report, which I have in front of me, Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story.

Released in December, this report offers facts, insights and 12 recommendations to guide us in our efforts to support the social integration of these new Canadians. It is based on what committee members learned from representatives of government, private sponsors, support agencies and the refugees themselves.

Their testimony enabled us to prepare an analysis including far more than the demands for federal government programs and funding. In addition to its 12 recommendations, the report probes the distinct dimensions of Syrian refugee experiences. It highlights indicators of how we should move forward in helping those who escaped Syria to resettle in Canada. This is a crucial point in the process of integration.

The anniversary has passed. We are now moving into a crucial time, which is known as month 13. After one year, the federal government and sponsors no longer have financial obligations to the refugees. As a result of this and other changes, the pressure on these new Canadians to become self-sufficient is significantly more intense than ever.

Provincial and territorial aid, the Canada Child Benefit: Naturally these and other sources of financial support will fill gaps but, honourable senators, there will be financial shortfalls and we have to keep that in the mind in the year ahead.

There are also additional options that we should consider. During our fact-finding mission and hearings, we learned that, although most Syrian refugees came to Canada as part of federal government’s resettlement program, others arrived here before this program was launched. Still others made the journey with the help of private sponsors and referrals from visa offices and other organizations. Some had to borrow money from the federal government for their travel. Now, after 12 months, they are expected to pay these loans back, with interest.

There was testimony from Malaz Sebai, Board Director, Lifeline Syria, who said there is somewhat of running joke in the sponsorship community which is: How do we welcome refugees in Canada? With a debt?

This committee proposes a way to reduce the pressure on and create a far more fair arrangement for those refugees indebted to the government, and they are as follows:

Given the uphill battle of integration that refugees face, the Government of Canada must replace these loans with grants or introduce a debt forgiveness mechanism for those who are unable to repay them. At the very least, the Government of Canada should stop profiting from their hardship and not charge interest.

The federal government must continue to help and lead the resettlement program. In light of the complex nature of the situation, the program also has to include contributions from outside the public sector, from the grassroots level on up. This is certainly an appropriate way to deliver one of the most important means to achieve social integration: language training.

In October 2016, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reported that since August, 64 per cent of eligible Syrian refugees outside of Quebec had enrolled in language training. John McCallum, the department’s minister at that time, also announced an additional $18 million, with 7,000 new spaces for language instruction. That’s good news, but it’s not good enough.

There remains a backlog of Syrian refugees who still don’t speak English or French. As things currently stand, many of them will not receive training no matter how much the government invests in language programs. What is required is a solution tailored to the realities of their lives here. For example, within a family, one parent — typically the mother — will stay home with the children so the other parent can attend language classes. This creates a disadvantage not only for women but also for the children they are raising. Plans and arrangements, therefore, must be crafted to provide more child care spaces in conjunction with language training.

Another reality that has to be addressed with a combination of widespread programming and individual services is the psychological impact of what these people endured in their former homeland. They have witnessed and suffered unimaginable experiences of violence, hatred and torture. Human responses to experiences like these are typically delayed. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder take time to surface.

We have to be prepared for this with services for specific forms of mental illness and their causes, and it has to be culturally sensitive. We believe as a committee that money should be set aside for more Arabic-speaking psychologists so they can be involved in the refugee community and their stories. The committee heard of a little boy who, months after coming to this country, would hide his toys under his bed in case soldiers came to his home to take them away. That’s in Canada; that’s in Ottawa.

A year ago, Canadians were swept up in a wave of altruism and compassion. The vulnerability of thousands of Syrian refugees and our collective will to assist them were top of mind. It was an extraordinary time, and it was time when the government worked hard and we all worked successfully together, when it seemed the best of human nature cast a bright light across the country. That light is still shining, but it is not shining bright enough.

Finding Refuge in Canada points out that although Syrian refugees left the hardships of war far behind them, they are now coping with new challenges and so, too, are governments and other organizations responsible for ensuring the successful integration of these newcomers in our country.

This brings me to the point. We hear this from groups today and during our hearings, and it’s the idea of the backlog of thousands of people who were ready, willing and able. They are prepared to accept the refugees, their hearts are in place and yet there is a backlog. So it’s not out of sight, out of mind, but it is a place where we think, as a committee, that civil servants should be encouraged to get back to what they were doing 12 months ago. Families are expecting this, and organizations and families are waiting. There are long delays for other members of the families to join them, as well. They are on the outside of a process, unable to get adequate or clear updates on where their loved ones are, the ones in the families, as well, who are here.

There are also thousands of sponsorship groups that have raised funds, collected household items and taken necessary training but have not yet been matched with families in Syria. They are waiting. This backlog has to be cleared up.

Going forward, we have to ensure that families can be reunited. Processes need to be more transparent and accountable. We heard this over again regarding family reunification. To eliminate backlogs, the government has to assign more staff to reunite families and to connect sponsors with refugees.

Late in the year 2015 we extended a fresh, heartfelt welcome to Syrian refugees. We cannot abandon them now.

I have a couple of quotes I would like to put on the record. One was from Reverend Brian Cornelius, Chair of the Finance Committee of the First United Church here in Ottawa. He is repeating, over and over again, that:

Loss of energy due to slowed processes would be really unfortunate because the energy of engaged sponsorship groups provides a network and even a sense of family for new arrivals.

Louisa Taylor, Director of Refugee 613, said:

Sadly, the bureaucracy around sponsorship is choking this goodwill from sponsors.

Deputy Chair Senator Ataullahjan and I have worked so closely with the rest the committee, putting our hearts and souls into this report. It is our hope that our report reawakens Canada’s and Canadians’ compassion and desire to keep our promise to thousands of people — men, women, youth and children — who came here for a better life. We can only gain from learning about these new Canadians. Their experiences, their values and their dreams yield connections to us all.

We can search and search for reasons behind events like the vicious attack on worshippers in a Quebec mosque. Explanations, however, begin and end with the attacker and anyone who hates and harms people because of their faith or culture. Each of us has the right to dignity, to security and to explore and realize our potential. A country built on this principle is a place where the best parts of human nature shine.

If we turn our backs on those who escaped Syria and entrusted Canada with their destinies, we are letting down everyone who calls this country home, whether they have lived here for generations or have only just arrived.

Honourable senators, let’s do what needs to be done to help Syrian refugees and new Canadians lay down roots and flourish so we, as a society, will also grow stronger.

On a personal note — and I don’t really care if this is a conflict of interest — my family, along with other families, have sponsored a Syrian refugee family and it has been the most special year in our lives. I never thought, at this age of almost 71, that I would have six new friends, four of whom I skated with again on the canal, since I’m the senator from Ottawa/Rideau Canal.

A year ago, in January, this family came to this country and they came off the plane, as we see in that picture over and over again. A few days later I had Feras, Naim, Aboudi, Mohamed and their mother skating — well, trying to skate — on the Rideau Canal.

Here we are, a year later, in their homes. There we were, on Sunday afternoon, and I knew the Super Bowl was at 6:30, but what did Naim, Feras, Mohamed and Aboudi want to do? They wanted to go skating on the canal because they wanted to show Senator Jim that they could really skate now. Do you know what their first words were in the English language? I taught them, “He shoots, he scores!”

They can skate, but as we were skating along you could see where the teachers have already been involved in who they are as new Canadians and our next-door neighbours. And I get very emotional about it, because as we were skating along — and they are pretty good skaters, now — I think it was Naim who kept saying, “Work hard, learn more.” Where did that come from? It had to come from within the education system and his family.

And can you imagine the parents of this family, four years ago, living in little village outside Homs? The dad, Hekmat, would bring vegetables and fruit to the marketplace, and one day the bombing just got to be too much. They packed into the truck and tore away across the border into Lebanon. Just imagine leaving behind your mother and father, a mother who has passed away since they’ve been gone.

This family is here with us and is part of our fabric. It’s going to be wonderful to see in 10 years from now where these boys go and what they do in building our nation.

I encourage you to reread this report and I encourage the government to pay attention to our 12 recommendations, and let’s get on with welcoming more. They are Canadians; they are us.