Nearly one year after refugees from Syria and elsewhere started arriving in Alberta, some have yet to overcome language barriers while others have struggled to find employment amid a brutal economic downturn, says Stephen Carattini, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services.
Catholic Social Services has helped resettle refugees in northern Alberta for years. How was this experience different?
First, the scope and the sheer number of people coming to us within a very, very short period of time. Within 10 weeks, from the middle of December, 2015 to the beginning of March, 2016, we're looking here in Edmonton and in Red Deer at approximately 1,100 to 1,200 men, women and children who came to be resettled in Canada.
Normally in a given year we will resettle throughout the year somewhere between 400 to 500 refugees. So within 10 weeks we did close to what we would normally do in two years.
As an institution, how did you cope?
There were a lot of pre-conversations that went on around accommodating this influx. I think once they started to arrive, obviously, a lot of our plans had to evolve very, very quickly. There were days when we would go to the airport and there was 30, 40 even upwards of 60 or 70 refugees arriving in a given day.
In the normal resettlement environment, we provide temporary accommodation for up to two weeks. Catholic Social Services has an apartment complex that we own and operate – we call it our reception house – that is specifically to house newly arrived refugees. We quickly overwhelmed that.
We cut a deal with a hotel here in town that agreed to help us take the additional refugees coming in. That presented some challenges. We have to then be providing services at two locations to a significant number of people. We had upwards of 250 people at a time at a local hotel in addition to the 60 people we had at our reception house.
How much support do government-sponsored refugees get?
We have funds that are made available to them through us for rent, for food, for transportation.
When they move into their apartment there's a basic amount of furniture and household items that are purchased on their behalf. It's an allowance based on the size of their family.
They're expected to be able to meet their needs for the first year based on the assistance that they're receiving along with our help. And then, at the end of that year, that assistance is no longer available to them.
Are there ongoing challenges?
There's a continuing need to learn the language as quickly as possible. So it's not just about getting into classes. It's about finding volunteers to come and have conversations with people so that they can learn the language and learn how to interact.
I think finding work is also another challenge. Alberta's in a difficult economic circumstance, so finding work has been challenging as well. We continue to seek volunteers that will come in and help our newcomers with resume writing, interviewing skills, and even just thinking about what people might be able to do and having that conversation.
Has technology – and staying connected with family – helped people adjust?
This is a generation of refugees that is still intimately connected with the families and friends they left behind. When I would go to the hotel to visit with our newcomers all of them were communicating with each other and with their loved ones back home via WhatsApp.
That can be very good in the sense that there's that link. It can also be very challenging, in that there are people, families and friends and loved ones back home who are suffering and who are in many ways hoping that their relatives here in Canada can now help them.
Usually refugees are coming to us from difficult places in the world and those difficulties don't go away for them when they arrive here. Their immediate family is safe and secure but I think in many cases their hearts and their minds are still back with their loved ones.
This interview has been edited and condensed.