After working on several blueberry farms

Building a new life

Refugees must tackle many challenges as they start over in Surrey.

Living in a plush villa in Iraq a decade ago, the Baranj family felt like they had it made.

Bahjat Baranj owned a liquor store, which provided the family with a comfortable living.

However, some didn’t take too kindly to the fact he was selling alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam.

Threats ensued, causing Bahjat and his wife Kanar to fear for the safety of their three teenage sons.

They escaped to Jordan, where they planned to pay someone to be smuggled into Germany.

But the smugglers told them they would be caught and jailed if they tried to enter Germany. Instead, they convinced the Baranj family to go to Cambodia.

Once there, they stayed in a small apartment, funded by the United Nations under its refugee program.

In April 2004, it was time to move, and the family was shipped off to Canada – settling in Surrey.

Kanar said she’s thrilled to be here, but it was a bit of a shock at first.

In Cambodia, rent for a furnished apartment cost $100 and food was extremely inexpensive.

Rent for a similar place in Surrey is about $700, and groceries far more expensive than they were in Cambodia.

The family of five went to work in local blueberry fields for a few months, and sustained themselves on what they were served at the farms.

Eventually, Bahjat found work as a flooring waterproofer, and Kanar now works in a Guildford restaurant the family owns and operates.

As for their early struggles, the Baranjes are not alone.

More than 6,000 refugees arrive in this province every year, with some of them fleeing their home country on their own and others being privately sponsored. About half of them are Government Assisted Refugees (GARs).

Almost 100 GARs arrived in this province during the first three months of this year alone, with 50 per cent of them children under 18.

In B.C., the bulk of the GARs are settling in Coquitlam (30 per cent) and Surrey (29 per cent), with the rest going to Burnaby (11 per cent), North Vancouver (10 per cent), and New Westminster (nine per cent).

So far this year, GARs have come from Iran (49 per cent), Iraq (24 per cent), Congo (11 per cent), Syria (eight per cent), and Ethiopia (four per cent).

June 20 was World Refugee Day, and is being heralded this year by the United Nations with the theme “Refugees have no choice, you do.”

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said many of the challenges facing refugees are similar to those experienced by the Baranj family.

All GARs come to Canada with the weight of interest-bearing loans for their travel expenses provided to them by Ottawa.

The interest alone can be about $175 a month.

Refugees are reliable in paying off their loans, often through misguided fear of being deported by missing payments, but do so at the expense of food on the table.

“We have examples of youth who have dropped out of school to help their parents pay off this loan,” Friesen said.

Friesen wants to see an end to the interest charged on the loan, saying it’s wrong that one of the richest countries in the world is charging interest on loans to refugees.

Another barrier for new refugees is language, which can block them from getting everything from jobs to housing. Education, he said, is essential.

Adding to their difficulties, Friesen said, is the fact skills learned abroad don’t automatically translate into jobs here.

It will take policy change at the provincial and federal levels to get those talents recognized here, Friesen said, adding that there is a public perception that refugees are unskilled.

“There are many successful individuals, that while supported initially, are doing amazing, life-changing work.”

Young refugees in particular, he said, run into difficulties.

“They had no choice in the matter, their parents fled (the home country) and they were dragged along,” Friesen said. “Now they suddenly find themselves in Surrey, in amongst the concrete jungle, after spending maybe their whole life in a refugee camp.”

That usually means they’ve had limited or no formal education. And then they’re dropped into the provincial school system.

The solution requires more training for teachers, policy changes at the provincial level, and additional counselling for the refugee student.

“It would be fair to say that over 80 per cent of settled refugees have… been traumatized in various degrees and various circumstances,” Friesen said.

Another problem is racism, which is widespread, Friesen said.

These challenges can mostly be countered with education, of both of the public and of refugees.

Getting rid of the interest-bearing loans, which have been described by local officials in Surrey as patently unfair, will take policy changes in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the Baranj family is just happy to be somewhere where the lives of their children are not threatened.

Fast facts:

MYTH: Real refugees are those who wait in refugee camps overseas. Those who make a claim in Canada jump the line and are not as deserving.

FACT: Refugees are people who have been forced from their homes by human rights abuses. All refugees have a right to protection, wherever they are. Canada also has legal obligations towards refugees in Canada under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention against Torture. The Supreme Court of Canada has also confirmed that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights of asylum-seekers to fundamental justice.

MYTH: Canada does more than its share to assist refugees and asylum-seekers when compared to other countries.

FACT: Only a small minority of refugees and asylum-seekers make claims in the world’s richest countries, including Canada. In 2006, Tanzania alone hosted more refugees than Canada, France, Australia, the United States, Germany, Spain and Japan combined. While Syria, Chad, Kenya, Thailand, China, Iran and Jordan each hosted more than 250,000 refugees in 2006, Canada hosted only 43,500.

MYTH: Refugee claimants pose threats to Canada’s security.

FACT: Refugee claimants are not threats to security – they are seeking security and protection from threats to their own lives. Refugee claimants all go through a front-end security screening. Through this process, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service checks all refugee claimants on arrival in Canada. Since the screening was put in place in 2001, the number of claimants found to represent any kind of security concern has been statistically insignificant.

MYTH: Refugees are a drain on our economy.

FACT: Only a handful of the world’s refugees (about .007% in 2008) receive assistance from the Canadian government, usually for a very limited amount of time (one year). All refugees who resettle to Canada are expected to pay back the travel costs associated with their resettlement. Studies show that refugees and immigrants also contribute positively to the Canadian economy. Many refugees start small businesses that employ both themselves and native Canadians. In addition, immigration helps to offset the effects of our declining birth rate and aging population.

MYTH: Refugees want to abuse the system and get rich.

FACT: Refugees do not come to Canada to abuse the system or get rich. It is important to remember the cause for which they resettle to Canada. Unlike economic migrants, refugees have arrived in Canada in search of protection. The wars and conflicts that caused people to flee their countries in the first place did not discriminate between the rich or poor, and many of them led successful lives before being forced to leave everything behind in search of safety.

– Sources: Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International

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