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Syrian refugee Ali Rahme, right, speaks with International Language Academy of Canada Director of Studies Angela Johnston during a break from English classes in Vancouver on Thursday.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The federal government says it is working on pilot projects to link Syrian refugees to free language classes being offered by schools across the country.

Those schools – both private- and public-sector programs that provide English and French language courses across the country – made free instruction available to government-sponsored and privately sponsored refugees last year but have been disappointed as only a handful of the newcomers took advantage of the opportunity.

Over the same period, waiting lists for federal language instruction have grown and many refugees are waiting months to get into entry-level classes.

"Obviously, there's a disconnect here," says Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, which represents the programs that have offered the classes.

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Meetings are scheduled in January to discuss speeding up the process, he added.

"Very few of the places offered have been filled, and we are concerned that the places offered last year will not be available in the future. I am certain that our members would offer new places, but it will likely mean restarting the process of finding spots and needing to explain to members why their initial offer was not taken up," Mr. Peralta said.

The federal government says it is committed to helping all newcomers, including refugees, develop the English or French language skills that they need to settle in their communities and contribute to the Canadian economy.

The government's priority is "to place eligible clients in language training classes that are most suited to their needs and settlement goals," Lindsay Wemp, a spokeswoman for the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in an e-mail.

"Information provided to IRCC by Languages Canada states that Languages Canada programs are accredited to a high level, and mostly provide language education to tuition-paying international students. This presented some implementation challenges for the majority of Syrian refugees where the greatest identified need is for basic language ability levels," she added.

Ottawa is working with provincial governments to set up pilot projects "that will facilitate the uptake of this generous offer," Ms. Wemp said, adding that pilot projects would be focused on British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, where matches with Syrian refugees are most likely.

A referral process would match refugee clients with local training offers, Ms. Wemp said.

In Vancouver, Ali Raheme – a Syrian refugee who came to Canada in February – learned of the language classes through his sponsor group.

Since April, he has been attending classes at International Language Academy of Canada's downtown site five days a week, rubbing shoulders with students from Brazil, Japan and South Korea.

"In Syria, I only knew Syrian people," said Mr. Raheme, who was working part-time and attending university in Syria before fleeing to Lebanon, from where he came to Canada.

"I didn't know Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese – I didn't know anyone from there," he said.

In an interview between classes, he said he hopes to learn enough English to attend college or university.

Mr. Raheme came to Canada through the blended visa office-referred program, which matches refugees identified for settlement by the United Nations Refugee Agency with private sponsors in Canada.

His sponsors include Mia Sidran, who came to Canada with her parents as government-sponsored refugees from Croatia in the 1990s.

Learning English was critical to her family's success in Canada, Ms. Sidran said.

"It's not only practical daily life – it's also self-confidence, at least it has been for me all these years," Ms. Sidran said. "To be able to speak and form relationships with others – the language is crucial."

Elham Nanaa is adapting to a new life in Canada at Toronto’s Malvern Junior Public School, in a classroom where other refugees are learning the skills they need to integrate

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