Albertans are opening their arms to incoming Syrian refugees looking for housing, social support and work, even as the province's economy suffers from a slump in oil prices.
Alberta will resettle between 2,500 and 3,000 Syrian refugees as a part of the Canadian government's commitment to resettle tens of thousands this year. As of Friday, more than 1,900 Syrian refugees had arrived in Alberta, according to a government database, concentrated in five cities across the province: Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.
Resettlement agencies say they have a strong handle on the influx of refugees arriving at their doorstep and the organizations have been astounded by the response from communities to help the newcomers.
"We are extremely overwhelmed by the generosity of the people coming forward, volunteering their time, their services," said Anoush Newman, Syrian Refugees Taskforce Project Co-ordinator at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
"Groups are contacting us saying: 'We are a group of grandmothers who would like to knit mitts and scarves [for refugees].'"
Despite recent requests from other major Canadian cities to delay the arrival of new Syrian refugees for a few days because of housing backlogs, Ms. Newman said Calgary has the situation under control. She said families have had good access to health care, English-as-a-second-language classes and schooling and have been spending relatively little time – a week or two – in temporary housing, such as hotels.
"The only challenge we had was large families, over seven, eight members, because finding reasonable accommodation for families of eight, nine, 10 is a challenge."
The story is similar in Lethbridge. The city has resettled more than 90 Syrian refugees as of Friday. Sarah Amies, director of the Immigrant Services department of Lethbridge Family Services, admits the refugee intake is a lot for a city with a population of nearly 95,000. She said there have been no barriers to social services for the refugees so far, aside from the fact that their monthly housing allowance often isn't sufficient.
After Syrian refugees settle into the community, they set out to find work, an effort that may appear to be challenging in the face of Alberta's soaring unemployment rate. The province's unemployment rate reached 7.4 per cent in January, up from 7 per cent in December, according to Statistics Canada data released Friday. Alberta's energy-driven economy has been hit hard by a severe drop in oil prices.
However, the outlook isn't so grim for Syrian refugees, according to experts. University of Alberta associate political science professor Reza Hasmath said most refugees won't be taking jobs from unemployed Albertans. "They're competing for the jobs that previous migrants are competing for, and they're competing for jobs that most Canadians no longer want to do," Mr. Hasmath said. "So, irrespective of whether the economy is doing well or not, they're not really competing with the general labour market."
Mr. Hasmath said one of the biggest issues for the refugees will be finding that available work because they don't have easy access to the networks required to seek those jobs. That's why Ms. Amies and Lethbridge Family Services are encouraging refugees to learn as much English as possible through government-funded classes before they enter the work force.
Much like Calgary and Lethbridge, the business community in Red Deer is also eager to hire Syrian refugees.
"Predominantly you're talking about service-sector jobs, so that's in food and beverage, or hotel and lodging. … While Alberta may be having some issues which are to do with natural resources, we have just come off years of labour shortages," Red Deer Chamber of Commerce executive director Tim Creedon said.