One year later, many Syrians in Toronto still need assistance, especially with English
The one year anniversary means government assisted refugees are about to lose a monthly financial allowance.
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As the federal government prepares to cut funding to thousands of Syrian refugees, settlement agencies warn many of them aren’t ready to stand on their own just yet.
It’s been one year since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals welcomed the first of the 25,000 Syrian refugees they pledged to bring to Canada.
The anniversary will be bittersweet for many new arrivals; it means government-assisted refugees will no longer receive their monthly living allowance – between $1,200 and $1,400 per family.
Those working on the front lines of refugee service in the city say the transition could be a rocky one.
“The vast majority of them are still going to need assistance after this one year,” said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto. “They are still in the learning process and may end up on social assistance because they can’t find jobs.”
Toronto has welcomed around 2,400 government-assisted refugees since last December.
Housing proved to be the biggest challenge, as both government-assisted and privately-sponsored families struggled to find affordable places to rent. In some cases, refugees were stuck in hotels for as long as five months before finding permanent housing.
COSTI currently has about 70 people in hotels across the city, and the group continues to receive new arrivals every week.
Calla said only about one in 10 refugees speaks English, and those are the ones who have been able to find jobs within this first year. A number of other Syrians also found jobs in places where English is not necessarily essential, but many more will need to be in ESL classes for much longer.
“The transition from one’s homeland to a new country is a painful one,” he said. “These people are obviously very happy to be here and getting on with life, but the challenges still remain.”
It’s been a rollercoaster year for Hanadi Almawi and her three children, who arrived in Toronto last January from Lebanon. After spending months in a hotel, they got an apartment in Thorncliffe Park, where the kids quickly connected with their peers and are now comfortable going to school with others.
“English is still difficult for me,” said Almawi, who has been taking ESL classes for the past five months. She worries about what will happen when government stops offering financial help, since she “can’t manage life outside.
“We still need a translator when we go to the doctor and other issues,” she said.
Language still an issue
They may be nearing their one-year anniversary in Canada, but many Syrian refugees are struggling to learn English.
In response, the Syrian Canadian Foundation is enlisting the help of the language department at the University of Toronto. Together, the two organizations will be offering a volunteer tutorial program to help families in Mississauga and Scarborough with their English.
“The process of integration takes a lot longer and not having the language skills delays everything,” said Bayan Khatib, one of the tutorial organizers.
The foundation previously taught basic English skills to Syrian children, but recently shifted their focus to adults after realizing many may finish the first year without attending ESL classes.
While it’s easier for children to adapt once they start going to schools and meeting with their peers, adults find it harder to move past traumatic experiences of the war and learn a new language, said Khatib.
“I’m confident most will eventually find jobs and end up on their feet, but it’s very hard,” she said.