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British Columbia Report highlights increase in entrepreneurship among Syrian refugees in B.C.

Nihal Elwan is pictured at Tayybeh, a pop-up restaurant and catering company specializing in Syrian cuisine, in Vancouver on May 2, 2018. ‘We have different neighbours around us … so we all have to interact and co-exist, sharing ovens and stoves,’ she says.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

More than two years after Raghda Hassan arrived in Vancouver as a refugee from Syria, she’s a successful entrepreneur working at Tayybeh, a pop-up restaurant and catering company specializing in Syrian cuisine. For most of the eight women that make up Tayybeh, this is their first job ever.

“It’s almost as if God sent this to me,” Ms. Hassan said.

“Otherwise, I would be spending my entire life at home thinking of what I lost and what happened to us.”

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Ms. Hassan is among some 4,400 Syrians who settled in British Columbia as part of a wave of refugees that began in the fall of 2015. And as with Ms. Hassan, many of those refugees have excelled in self-employment and entrepreneurship, a new report from the Immigrant Services Society of BC concludes.

The immigrant-settlement agency surveyed 241 households representing more than 1,000 Syrians who moved to the province as government-assisted refugees.

The report says the number of refugees working has doubled over the past year with 27 per cent working on a full-time basis and 13 per cent with part-time jobs. While the report doesn’t contain specific stats about self-employment or entrepreneurship, it cites anecdotal evidence of the “emergence of Syrian-owned businesses, including in the catering, flooring and restaurant sectors.”

While the overall employment numbers may seem low, Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at the agency, said those levels are exceptional considering the first priority for refugees is normally to learn English.

“You can’t really find a job unless you pick up the language” he said.

Refugees are faring well on language proficiency, with 87 per cent reporting that their English has improved since coming to Canada. Almost all the women at Tayybeh go for language classes; Ms. Hassan maintains it is her biggest challenge in the country. What does help is interacting with non-Syrians in the commissary kitchen where they work.

“We have different neighbours around us, mostly Canadians, some Latin Americans, some Koreans, so we all have to interact and co-exist, sharing ovens and stoves and all kinds of things,” said Nihal Elwan, a Cairo-born international-development consultant who spearheaded Tayybeh.

The report noted 96 per cent of respondents said they intended to become Canadian citizens.

More than two-thirds of the refugees reported making non-Syrian friends while 65 per cent said they know their immediate neighbours.

“I don’t even think British Columbians know their neighbours,” Mr. Friesen said.

However, he said he’s concerned with the 11 per cent of respondents who said either they or members of their family were depressed. Of those, more than half said their mental health deteriorated over the past year.

It’s typical to see trauma-related problems surface once the initial adjustment of housing, work and school is done, Mr. Friesen said. But what is worrying is the lack of services available to address the issue.

“We have only six specialized centres across the country that are capable of providing refugee-related counselling,” he said. Government-assisted refugees are usually the most vulnerable cases, which are referred to Canada by the UN Refugee Agency.

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“If the government is going to keep selecting refugees based on vulnerability, then we need a settlement-informed refugee trauma program,” Mr. Friesen said.

Ms. Hassan believes the work at Tayybeh helped her psychologically by keeping her busy. Every day is a juggle between work, language classes and her six-year-old daughter, who is doing well in school − a trend reported by 97 per cent of refugee parents.

“The moment she started going to school, she’s much happier. Even on the weekends, she asks, ‘Is there school tomorrow?’ ” Ms. Hassan said.

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