Surrey home to almost half of B.C.’s Syrian refugees

Administrators at two Surrey-based settlement agencies say their front-line workers are overwhelmed by the heavier-than-expected demand.

  • Jun. 13, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Caroline Lai manages the Surrey school district's Welcome Centre for immigrant students.

By Tara Carman

SURREY — More Syrian refugees than expected have settled in Surrey, despite efforts by Ottawa and Victoria to send more of them outside the Lower Mainland, figures from the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. reveal.

Just under half (44 per cent) of the nearly 1,700 government-assisted Syrian refugees who have arrived in the province since November have settled in Surrey. That is up from 22 and 23 per cent of all the incoming refugees to B.C. who settled in Surrey in 2014 and 2015, according to Chris Friesen, settlement services director for the Immigrant Services Society.

Almost all the government-assisted Syrian refugees who arrived between December and February have been permanently housed, with just a handful of families remaining in hotels in Metro Vancouver, Abbotsford and Victoria.

The heavier-than-expected influx into Surrey, where many Syrian refugees are attracted by relatively cheaper housing prices and a growing Middle Eastern community in the Guildford area, has resulted in months-long waiting lists for support services.

Administrators at two Surrey-based settlement agencies both say their front-line workers are overwhelmed by the demand.

“There’s definitely the overwhelm around … more and more needs, and there’s not enough time in the day or programming available to meet the needs,” said Tahzeem Kassam of DIVERSEcity community resources society.

DIVERSEcity has 298 people on its waiting list for English classes, 49 of whom are Syrian refugees, Kassam said. Waiting lists can be up to a year for basic-level classes and for people who need child care in order to attend, she added.

Waiting lists are similarly long for the Moving Ahead program, which provides wraparound support services for refugees identified by outreach workers as particularly vulnerable due to past trauma, disabilities, or a lack of formal education. There have been 60 Syrian refugee referrals to the program since late February, of which 33 are now on a waiting list, Kassam said, in addition to another 20 non-Syrian refugees also on the waiting list.

DIVERSEcity has received additional funding from both Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the B.C. government to support Syrian refugees. Ottawa did, however, cut funding for English classes this year because B.C. received fewer permanent residents relative to other parts of the country last year.

Settlement workers at Options Community Services, also in Surrey, have had to make changes to accommodate the Syrians, said Connie Hong, the agency’s settlement and integration manager.

“When they arrived, it was so hard for them to even come to see us (in Newton) because in regular settlement we don’t really do home visits or accompaniment or anything. But we had to modify a little bit to kind of accommodate their needs … they’d get lost. So … we did an initial home visit with them, and we showed them how to get to our office,” she said.

Options is addressing the lack of space in formal, government-funded English classes by having retired teachers who are volunteers lead informal conversation circles, Hong said. Arabic-speaking volunteers have also stepped in to help with tasks that settlement workers don’t have time for, such as taking newly arrived families grocery shopping and showing them around their neighbourhoods.

The Surrey school district is also experiencing an influx of new students, given that about 60 per cent of the Syrian refugees arriving in B.C. are under the age of 18. Surrey has welcomed about 285 Syrian refugee students since Feb. 1, said Judy Henriques, the district’s acting director of instruction.

Most high school-aged students start out in the Bridge program, which is designed for refugee students whose schooling has been interrupted. It offers a combination of English language training and cultural orientation, teaching students things like how the school system works, said Caroline Lai, who manages the district’s Welcome Centre for immigrant students.

The district has expanded the Bridge program from one class to four, thanks to expanded funding from both Victoria and Ottawa, Lai said. Two of the classes are based at the Welcome Centre in Newton, while two others have been placed in the secondary schools with the largest number of Syrian refugee students: Guildford Park and Queen Elizabeth, near Surrey Memorial Hospital.

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