Arrival of second influx of Syrians will be smoother: immigrant support groups

There were lessons learned about the systems and services needed to process and support new arrivals, and also in community partnerships

Newly-arrived Syrian refugee Anjilik Jaghlassian, centre, and her family receive winter clothes and other items at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Newly-arrived Syrian refugee Anjilik Jaghlassian, centre, and her family receive winter clothes and other items at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

VANCOUVER – Many of the immigrant support groups that leapt into overdrive less than a year ago to welcome the first influx of Syrian refugee families say the intensity of that experience has helped lay the groundwork for what is expected to be a far more manageable second wave this fall.

Canada is on the cusp of receiving another surge of Syrians in order to meet its ambitious refugee admissions target by the end of 2016, though government officials are mum on the details around timing.

Immigration Canada pledged to bring in 25,000 government-assisted refugees this calendar year. About 6,000 are still to come.

Chris Friesen of British Columbia’s Immigrant Services Society was unequivocal about the progress made since last year and whether Canada is more prepared to handle the upcoming arrivals.

“Oh, God, yes. Absolutely,” Friesen said in an interview Monday, laughing heartily. “We’re in a much better situation.”

MORE: Michael Friscolanti catches up with Syrian refugee family no. 417, six months later

Experience from the first phase, combined with a longer lead-up time, means the many lessons learned can be put into practice in preparation for the fall, he said.

Friesen said those lessons include expanded orientation, more education around tracking down permanent housing and better measures to accommodate large families.

Mario Calla, head of COSTI Immigrant Services in the Toronto area, said he also expects the fall to be less intense because of a lower number of expected arrivals.

He said improvements include more children’s programming to accommodate the larger-than-expected families and better dental services for some groups.

Calla said these lessons related not only to the systems and services to process and support new arrivals, but also the networking and community partnerships that formed between various agencies and government departments.

“All of that is in place and it hasn’t been dismantled. And so it’s going to be a much smoother process,” he said.

But not all immigrant-support groups are as optimistic about the fall.

Marta Kalika of Welcome Place in Winnipeg raised concerns about the anticipated number of Syrian refugees due to arrive before the end of the year, as well as about the lack of information around support from other stakeholders, including the provincial government.

“The biggest problem now is everything is still up in the air,” she said. Manitoba underwent a change of government following a provincial election in April.

Kalika said Manitoba is set to welcome just under 1,200 refugees by the end of 2016, including a large number of Syrians.

“Let’s do the math. If the numbers that the federal government is providing are correct, then how do you expect no challenges (with) … 300 clients a month?” she asked, adding that Welcome Place has temporary accommodation for only 120 people at a time.

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, said that while the immediate kinks of the refugee-resettlement process have been mostly addressed, there is still a need to focus on the longer-term pressures faced by Canada’s recent newcomers.

She pointed to a greater need for childcare spaces affiliated with English-language instruction.

“This is of particular concern to us because we want to ensure that Syrian women, right from the get-go, are accessing programs, including language training,” Douglas said.

She also flagged resources for school systems and children’s services as vital, given the disproportionate number of young people included among the refugee families.

Since the start of November last year, Canada has received just over 30,000 Syrian refugees, more than 19,000 of whom were government assisted. The 19,000 figure includes blended visa office referred refugees, who receive partial government help.

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