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Rachel Lee, left, and Kelsey Devine, right, employees with Westbank, volunteer to organize about 11,000 Kilograms of items collected for Syrian refugees in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, December 3, 2015. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Rachel Lee, left, and Kelsey Devine, right, employees with Westbank, volunteer to organize about 11,000 Kilograms of items collected for Syrian refugees in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, December 3, 2015. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

New report offers glimpse into lives of British Columbia’s Syrian refugees Add to ...

Nearly one year after they arrived in British Columbia, a new report says three-quarters of government-assisted Syrian refugees are in a language class and most household heads who responded to a survey are actively looking for work – but those who are not yet in language training have endured lengthy waits and two-thirds of those surveyed said they regularly turn to the food bank.

The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. released a report Friday that examined the first year of Operation Syrian Refugee and offered a glimpse into the lives of those who settled in the province.

The federal Liberals last year vowed to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. The newly formed government missed its deadline by a couple of months, but ultimately met its goal. More than 35,000 Syrian refugees – including government-assisted, privately sponsored and blended refugees – have arrived in this country in total since November of last year.

The report said 2,100 government-assisted Syrian refugees had settled in B.C. as of late November. It said 424 privately sponsored and 326 blended Syrian refugees had arrived as of late August, when the most recent data for those two groups was made available.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society, said despite the challenges they have faced, the refugees have shown tremendous resiliency.

“I don’t think the public fully comprehends how life-changing an opportunity this is, for families to be able to leave the Middle East and seek a safe future for themselves and their children,” he said in an interview.

The report said 301 Syrian household heads – all of whom were government-assisted refugees and arrived in B.C. between early November, 2015, and the end of February, 2016 – participated in a telephone survey last month.

The report said 76 per cent of government-assisted refugees were in a language class, but those who were not had endured wait lists ranging from one month to 11 months.

It said 17 per cent of those who responded to the survey were working on a full- or part-time basis, and of those who were not, 64 per cent were actively looking.

The report went on to say 66 per cent of respondents used the food bank regularly, and 16 per cent had family members who were exhibiting signs of depression. It said mental-health supports and family reunification will be critical for the refugees moving forward.

The report said finances remain the primary concern for many Syrian refugees, particularly as they approach Month 13 in Canada. Mr. Friesen has said a family of three or more in B.C. could receive $350 less per month when it transitions from federal assistance to provincial assistance, because the federal program included supplements that the provincial program does not. A refugee group in Toronto has said some refugees there could also receive less money.

The B.C. and federal governments have said they are aware of the funding gap. The head of a Senate committee that this week released a report on Syrian refugees said the federal government should step in and match any funding shortfall.

Mr. Friesen said he was not surprised two-thirds of refugees surveyed had already turned to the food bank, given the level of income-assistance rates.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a statement said “food banks are a reality in many communities.” It said it will take further action as appropriate “to ensure refugees are able to successfully and sustainably settle in their new home communities, while also balancing fairness to others in need to ensure the best outcome possible for Canadian society as a whole.”

Marilyn Herrmann, executive director of Surrey Food Bank, said in an interview that between the beginning of February and the end of April her organization counted 789 new families at its facility. About 280 of those families, she said, were Syrian refugees. Ms. Herrmann said she had seen a slight increase in the food bank’s usage, but had not observed such an upswing in donations.

The report said most of the government-assisted refugees who settled in B.C. were from the Syrian city of Daraa and its surrounding region. It said most of the refugees spent three to five years in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with some living in refugee camps.

The average family who settled here had six members, some of whom were very young. Nearly 60 per cent of the refugees were under the age of 19 and half were 12 years old or younger. Of the adults, many had been employed in construction and agriculture. Of those who responded to the survey, 51 per cent initially settled in Surrey, while 11 per cent were in Vancouver.

The report said survey respondents expressed their gratitude to be in Canada. When asked if they had anything to add during the telephone conversation, 85 per cent of respondents said they simply wanted to give their thanks.

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