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Bilal Alfaloji with his three kids at the Sandman Hotel in Vancouver, where a large number of Syrian refugee are temporarily housed. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Bilal Alfaloji with his three kids at the Sandman Hotel in Vancouver, where a large number of Syrian refugee are temporarily housed. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Resettlement

After arriving in Canada, Syrian refugees still stuck in limbo Add to ...

Small children are running through the corridors of a Vancouver hotel with energy to burn. They are among the 38 Syrian families that arrived here on Dec. 28 to a warm reception when they were directed to wait for government officials to help them settle into their new homes.

More than two weeks later, they are still waiting, anxiously, to begin their lives in Canada.

Newly settled refugees open up about their dreams for 2016 (The Globe and Mail)

In a crowded hotel room, Shadi Alradi recounts how his family fled Syria to escape war. Like many others in this group, he spent several years in and around Jordan’s refugee camps before making his way to Vancouver. “We are hoping for a good future here in Canada,” he said through an interpreter.

Each of the families interviewed expressed gratitude to Canadians and to the government that brought them there. But the anxiety of how they will begin to resettle is palpable. They cannot look for housing, enroll their children in school or find English-language classes as they sit in a bureaucratic limbo. The cash allowance they were given for food is disappearing quickly in this expensive downtown neighbourhood.

“This is where we are today. We need someone to help us – we are nowhere,” Mr. Alradi said.

At their first stop in Toronto, they were greeted with meals and winter clothing. The next day, the group of government-assisted refugees – 189 people in all, including 117 children – landed in Vancouver. A team met them to help them with initial paperwork, and they were dropped off at a West End hotel with a modest amount of cash to purchase food and supplies.

An appointment with an immigration official has been postponed, twice. Instead of reaching the end of a long and harrowing journey, they are immobilized, unable to find their new homes somewhere on the other side of the hotel window.

The food allowance for government-assisted refugees during short-term, temporary stays in hotels is $10 a day for each adult and a one-time flat fee of $50 for each child, no matter how long they stay. One father produced a handful of receipts for medicine prescribed for his young daughter who is ill. Although he did not have to pay the full amount, the $22 bill consumed a large portion of the family’s remaining cash. He is fearful about what will happen when the money runs out.

Jenny Kwan, the New Democratic Party immigration critic, said the Canadian government needs to ensure the resources are in place to make this transition successful.

“They are hungry all the time,” she said.

“They are grateful to be here and they are eager to settle, to look for work and get their kids in school. But they are in limbo.”

Under the new federal Liberal government resettlement plan, more than 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since early December. Another 15,000 are expected by the end of February. Ms. Kwan urged the federal government to enhance transition services and to harness the power of the scores of volunteers who want to help make this effort a success.

“The next planes are coming,” Ms. Kwan said. “They need to get people through this stage.”

John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said Wednesday that the goal is to move the new refugees into permanent housing as quickly as possible. “There may be some who stay longer than planned [in temporary housing], but so far it is going well, but the numbers are due to increase quite dramatically in coming weeks, and this will certainly be a challenge.”

In Vancouver, federal resettlement services are provided by a contractor, the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. Director Chris Friesen said Wednesday there are a total of 679 government-assisted refugees from Syria in temporary housing at six locations around the city. Another 84 arrivals are expected by the end of the week, exceeding the agency’s temporary housing capacity.

“Our message to Ottawa today is that after Saturday, we need to wait until we can confirm how many families have moved out into permanent housing before we receive any additional arrivals.”

Although the agency has many leads for permanent housing, it is a challenge to find family rental accommodation on welfare rates in the Metro Vancouver region.

However, Mr. Friesen said he hopes to have permanent housing ready by next week for as many as 30 of the families who arrived on Dec. 28, and he has been in talks with local schools to ensure they are ready for the children. “Those families are our first priority,” he said.

Back at the hotel, a large group of men crowded into the suite assigned to Anwar Jamal Almahamed and his family, eager to ask Ms. Kwan, the NDP MP for Vancouver East, for news and advice.

“Welcome to my home,” Mr. Almahamed joked, expanding his arms in the small space. But his levity is forced.

His wife has cancer and they drained their savings while in Jordan obtaining medical treatment for her. There, he worked under the table to pay the bills. They have endured much already, and what he is asking for now is the opportunity to work and provide for his family of five.

Mr. Almahamed was worried he might sound ungrateful. “When we came to Canada, the reception is very good. We are thanking all the people and the government as well,” he said.

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