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British Columbia Privately sponsored refugees fare better in the short term, research says

The Debro family, Drenka, her husband Mirko and son Vladimir, moved from Bosnia when they were sponsored in 1996 by the same Campbell River church group who is sposoring 14 families from Syria. They're photographed at home in Campbell River, B.C., November 29, 2015.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It was nearly 20 years ago that Drenka Debro set foot in B.C., she, her husband and their young son fleeing the Bosnian war that had left an estimated 100,000 people dead.

Given a choice between Australia, the United States and Canada, they chose Canada – partly because of Ms. Debro's childhood memory of a beloved pair of winter boots that were called "Canadian boots" and partly because they understood Canada was a peaceful country.

Beyond that, they knew little. When they learned they were to be privately sponsored by St. Peter's Church in Campbell River, B.C., they had to look up the city on a map.

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As part of the Trudeau government's pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, now by the end of February, British Columbia is expected to receive about 400 by year's end.

Of those, roughly half will be government assisted and half will be privately sponsored, like the Debro family was in 1996.

Internal Citizenship and Immigration data suggest privately sponsored refugees have a leg up.

Refugees under the government program are referred to Canada for resettlement by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which prioritizes them on the basis of need. They are typically the most vulnerable, having come from the most desperate situations.

Privately sponsored refugees are most often brought over by Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH) such as a humanitarian group or a church. The St. Peter's Church, which sponsored the Debro family, is part of the Anglican Diocese of B.C., which is a SAH. Refugees can also be sponsored by a constituent group – a group of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents, or a community sponsor.

Privately sponsored refugees often have family links in the country of resettlement.

In a 2012 survey, the department's research and evaluation branch found privately sponsored refugees economically outperform government sponsored ones, at least initially.

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Among refugees who landed between 1993 and 2007, the department found those sponsored by the government were, on average, about twice as likely as those sponsored privately to be on social assistance two years after resettling in Canada.

In the tax year of 2009, for example, 19 per cent of privately sponsored refugees were receiving social assistance compared to 49 per cent of government-sponsored arrivals.

During the same period, privately sponsored refugees also consistently earned a higher annual income than their government-sponsored counterparts. In tax year 2009, PSRs earned an average annual income of $19,600, compared with $13,946 for GSRs.

Steven Meurrens, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer and chair of the Canadian Bar Association of B.C.'s immigration subsection, who has examined the two classes of refugees, said the figures should not lead one to conclude that one program is better than the other, or that one type of refugee is harder working than the other.

"CIC's data strongly suggests that the private sponsorship program can best resettle the greatest amount of people at the lowest cost to the taxpayer," he said.

"However, it's important to remember that the government assisted refugees tend to be the most vulnerable, and most in need of resettlement."

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The categorizations mean differences in every step of the journey toward a better life, from how refugees are selected to what their economic outcomes might be years after resettlement.

Upon arriving in Canada, government-sponsored refugees are typically greeted at the airport by government-contracted non-profit groups.

In B.C., these are members of SUCCESS, who transport them from Vancouver International Airport to a "welcome house" run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. The society also helps arrange temporary and permanent accommodations and navigates the paperwork to secure social insurance numbers, medical CareCards and bank accounts.

All refugees have immediate health-care coverage and access to public education.

Most government-sponsored refugees settle in five Lower Mainland municipalities: Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby, New Westminster and Vancouver. PSRs are more likely to be spread out across the province and tend to assimilate better – especially if they have been sponsored by family, said Mr. Meurrens.

"There's a great deal of thought [by private sponsors] that goes into how to get [refugees] economically established, because they're on the hook. Especially if they know that person, they'll know that person's strengths, where they might be able to work," he said. "Settlement agencies reaching out will never have the same impact as someone's friend saying, 'Hey, this is the person we brought over and he'd like to start working.' "

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The economic gaps between the two groups begin to close around the five-year mark.

When the Debros arrived in May of 1996, Ms. Debro spoke a little English, having studied it in school, but her husband, Mirko, spoke none. While the relative isolation of being in Campbell River was sometimes lonely, Ms. Debro says she made friends and learned English more quickly as a result.

Their sponsors had arranged housing, dishes, furniture and also helped the family find a local doctor and dentist. Volunteers took them shopping and helped them navigate unfamiliar labels and products. The couple soon found work – Ms. Debro cleaning hotels and her husband with a local cleaning janitorial company.

In 1999, Drenka and Mirko Debro ventured out and started their own company, VI Sparkle Janitorial. It now has 19 employees. The couple has bought and paid for a house and built a second one; their first house is now owned by their son, who works in the family business.

Ms. Debro said she hopes the prospective Syrian refugees will find the same kind of support she and her family encountered when they came to Campbell River nearly two decades ago.

"Those people didn't just give us money – it was real support, I had a lady coming to teach me how to cook, they gave us jobs – they worried for us," she said. "Money pays your bills, but having someone going to the grocery store and explaining what kind of flour to buy – it's the small things. It's more difficult than you think."

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