Daphne Bramham: Minister says resettling Syrian refugees is a work in progress

 

Approved families stranded, sponsors stymied, ‘crazy’ processing times all problems John McCallum has still to solve

 
 
 
 
Clockwise, from left, Sharon Yandle, Val Embree, Peer-Daniel Krause, Wes Knapp and Kathleen MacKinnon from the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association’s refugee committee are still awaiting the arrival of the Syrian family they sponsored, who are stuck in a refugee camp in Iraq.
 

Clockwise, from left, Sharon Yandle, Val Embree, Peer-Daniel Krause, Wes Knapp and Kathleen MacKinnon from the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association’s refugee committee are still awaiting the arrival of the Syrian family they sponsored, who are stuck in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

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For two months, a two-bedroom Vancouver co-op unit has been sitting empty, $2,000 has been drained out of a private refugee sponsorship group’s hard-earned and generously given fund, and two months of a 12-month sublet burned through.

The beds are made. Towels neatly folded. The children’s room is stocked with toys, books and clothes that may well been outgrown before two little girls even have a chance to wear them.

What’s missing are Mohammad Azad, his wife Helwa Alahmad and their two daughters — three-year-old Aya and six-month-old Pella. They’re stranded in Gawain refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. Their case file is stuck in a queue in Amman, Jordan, even though the family’s application to emigrate to Canada was approved on Feb. 23.

Members of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association’s refugee committee knew it was a risk subletting the apartment before a date was set for the arrival of their family. But it was a calculated one.

They balanced the risk of losing out on a $1,000-a-month rental in the False Creek neighbourhood and then scrambling to find anything in Metro Vancouver later against paying a few extra months’ rent. It was one deemed worth taking, especially since the group was able to raise $35,000 — $8,000 more than $27,000 maximum for sponsored families.

On Friday, some of them met with and made a direct appeal to John McCallum, Canada’s immigration, citizenship and refugee minister, to speed their family’s way to Canada. Along with that plea, they urged him to send immigration officers to Erbil and to work with the International Organization for Migration, which has workers already there.

McCallum made no specific promises, but later told The Vancouver Sun’s editorial board that he wants the processing expedited and expects that will happen now that the 25,000 government-assisted refugees are in Canada. And while his department’s website says that the processing can take up to four years, McCallum said, “That’s just crazy.”

Approved refugees stranded and their sponsors stymied are just two among the myriad of problems, McCallum and the government has yet to resolve. Others include underfunding of language classes that’s left waiting lists that are months long and refugees unable to work, cuts to other resettlement programs that have stalled integration and refugees marooned in hotel rooms.

There is no doubt that it was a massive undertaking to get 25,000 refugees from Middle Eastern camps to Canada. There’s lots of evidence that the humanitarian gesture in the face of a refugee crisis of almost unprecedented proportions has been embraced by Canadians. And, certainly, it has played well on the international stage, especially in contrast to the xenophobic, racist and isolationist sentiments that being shouted out in the United States by Donald Trump and others seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Has it been perfect? No. Is the job done yet? No.

Three-quarters of government-assisted refugees are now in permanent housing, but McCallum admits there are problems in Metro Vancouver and Toronto where real-estate prices and rental rates are astronomical. In future, he said, the government will settle more refugees in clusters outside the major, urban centres where there are enough services available to support them.

In Metro Vancouver, the rents are so high that many newcomers rely on food banks. McCallum said the government plans to speed up access to child tax credits. When that might happen, he didn’t say. But if it happens, it will be an important additional source of revenue, especially for government-assisted refugees whose families tend to be larger than those who are privately sponsored.

Families temporarily housed in a Surrey hotel got some good news Friday, albeit it not from the government. The Community Foundations of Canada announced a $500,000 grant to Immigrant Settlement Services Society of B.C. for rent subsidies. Community Foundations administers the $30-million Welcome Fund that was seeded by Manulife and received a $5-million boost from CN Rail in December.

What the minister did promise was more money for more language classes by the end of April, enough to cut waiting lists by as much as 40 per cent. But McCallum emphasized his belief that the best way for refugees to become fluent speakers is to learn as they work, which is why he also met with B.C. companies and urged them to help make that happen.

The Syrian resettlement remains a work in progress and McCallum said valuable lessons are being learned, not least of which is one he learned from Ron Atkey, the minister who oversaw the resettlement of nearly 56,000 Vietnamese.

It’s a simple one: Canadians will not remain enthusiastic forever. So, while they are, you’d best just run with it.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/daphnebramham

 
 
 
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Clockwise, from left, Sharon Yandle, Val Embree, Peer-Daniel Krause, Wes Knapp and Kathleen MacKinnon from the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association’s refugee committee are still awaiting the arrival of the Syrian family they sponsored, who are stuck in a refugee camp in Iraq.
 

Clockwise, from left, Sharon Yandle, Val Embree, Peer-Daniel Krause, Wes Knapp and Kathleen MacKinnon from the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association’s refugee committee are still awaiting the arrival of the Syrian family they sponsored, who are stuck in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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