Daphne Bramham: Sunny ways and goodwill not enough

 

Flawed policy: With 5,000 refugees already waiting for ESL, money is urgently needed

 
 
 
 
Iraqi refugees Zaenab Mahammed (second from left) and her husband Ahmed Sadik (far right) with friend and fellow Iraqi refugee Jabar Karnawe (far left) and interpreter Sireen El-Nashar (second from left) at SUCCESS in Surrey, Thursday, January 21, 2016.
 

Iraqi refugees Zaenab Mahammed (second from left) and her husband Ahmed Sadik (far right) with friend and fellow Iraqi refugee Jabar Karnawe (far left) and interpreter Sireen El-Nashar (second from left) at SUCCESS in Surrey, Thursday, January 21, 2016.

Photograph by: Jason Payne, VANCOUVER SUN

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More than 5,000 refugees and immigrants in Metro Vancouver are on waiting lists for basic English classes and are isolated by their inability to easily manage many of the simplest tasks of daily life.

It can take up to nine months for a refugee to get into the first stage of the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program. That’s where they learn enough English to navigate the transit system, do their banking and buy groceries without having to find a store where someone speaks their home language.

For anyone wanting or needing more than functional literacy, the wait can be up to 17 months. There are bottlenecks because not everyone learns at the same rate.

And, pity the poor refugees who are illiterate and may have never even held a pencil before they arrived. They may have to wait for pre-literacy classes before their names can even be added to the Stage 1 waiting list.

This is flawed public policy. Without a large infusion of government money to clear the waiting lists and expand the programs to accommodate the imminent arrival of 2,500 Syrians, newcomers will struggle.

The longer they have to wait to learn English, the longer it will be until they can work and the more likely it is that they’ll become lifelong welfare recipients.

SUCCESS has 3,000 names on its waiting list for 2,000 spots for all levels of instruction. Mosaic has 972 people waiting and 1,123 students, while the Immigrant Settlement Services Society has 1,100 people waiting and 1,300 in class.

People are waiting at every one of the three stages of the Canadian Language Benchmark because people learn at different rates, which causes bottlenecks.

The language training refugees and immigrants need is different than the conversational course you might take before going to Spain on a guided vacation or the French classes you took in school. This is practical, pragmatic survival language coupled with cultural overtones such as whether or not to stand when someone enters a room.

At Stage 1 (LINC levels 1-4), the goal is to ensure they can go to the bank, take the bus and shop on their own. It may be enough to get a job cleaning or enough to pass the Food Safe test and get a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Even with this basic English, several refugees have told me that they feel isolated and are anxious about venturing out on their own. What if they get lost? Will they be able to understand the directions for how to get home?

At Stage 2 (LINC levels 5-8), they’ll learn slang, idioms and enough to express abstract thoughts and feelings. After Stage 3, they’ll have what they need to go to post-secondary school or pass equivalency tests to pursue their professions.

Beyond the problem of language waiting lists, Mosaic’s Joan Andersen says there are so few child care spaces that some parents have to forfeit their spot in language class until their child gets a placement.

Other services at these non-profit settlement societies are beyond capacity as well. At SUCCESS’s Tri-Cities office, for example, it takes three weeks just to get an appointment with a Farsi-speaking settlement worker.

Settlement workers are refugees’ navigators, guides and translators. They help fill out government forms for necessities like health coverage, welfare, housing and school enrolment. They make appointments and go along with their clients to explain what’s being said.

There are, of course, privately owned schools that teach English and administer the Canadian English Language Proficiency tests. But they’re expensive and well beyond what most refugees living on welfare can afford.

The longer refugees wait to learn English, the longer it will be before they can work and the longer they will be on welfare. Even without long waits here, there will be some who, because of their ages and the time spent in refugee camps and way stations, will never learn enough English to function well before they’re too old to work.

The toll this waiting takes on these individuals who have already endured so much is terrible.

But there’s another price that might have to be paid unless money starts flowing now to clear up the waiting lists and ensure that there aren’t huge service gaps in the future.

Canadians have embraced the idea of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees this year and more in coming years. But the economy is weakening and that goodwill could quickly dissipate if these refugees aren’t able to settle and are perceived to be a drag on the economy instead of a positive influence.

History suggests that is a short-sighted argument since there’s ample proof of the enormous contributions that have been made by refugees, immigrants and their children.

But doing the best for refugees and Canada’s long-term success requires more than goodwill and sunny ways.

Canada has a stark choice: Invest now in this valuable human resource, or pay later for all that’s been wasted.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter:@daphnebramham

 
 
 
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Iraqi refugees Zaenab Mahammed (second from left) and her husband Ahmed Sadik (far right) with friend and fellow Iraqi refugee Jabar Karnawe (far left) and interpreter Sireen El-Nashar (second from left) at SUCCESS in Surrey, Thursday, January 21, 2016.
 

Iraqi refugees Zaenab Mahammed (second from left) and her husband Ahmed Sadik (far right) with friend and fellow Iraqi refugee Jabar Karnawe (far left) and interpreter Sireen El-Nashar (second from left) at SUCCESS in Surrey, Thursday, January 21, 2016.

Photograph by: Jason Payne, VANCOUVER SUN

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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