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Sisters Hanadi Alsedawe (standing right), Maha Alsedawe, Huda Alsedawe, with their mother Fayzeh Ramadan (standing left) seen here during a break from English class in Coquitlam October 25, 2016. (John Lehmann for The Globe and Mail)
Sisters Hanadi Alsedawe (standing right), Maha Alsedawe, Huda Alsedawe, with their mother Fayzeh Ramadan (standing left) seen here during a break from English class in Coquitlam October 25, 2016. (John Lehmann for The Globe and Mail)

For Syrian refugees, shift to provincial assistance is a financial challenge Add to ...

For Fayzeh Ramadan’s family of six, money has been tight.

Ms. Ramadan, her three daughters and her two sons fled war-torn Syria for Jordan in 2013, and arrived in British Columbia as government-assisted refugees in January. They spent their first few months in a Vancouver motel and later moved to an apartment in the suburb of Burnaby.

Their apartment, however, was far from perfect – two of Ms. Ramadan’s daughters use wheelchairs because of a medical condition, but their bathroom was not wheelchair-accessible. And the $2,400 the family paid in rent each month was nearly two-thirds of the approximately $3,700 it received from the federal government.

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The last few days of each month, Ms. Ramadan said through a translator, have been a challenge when it comes to money – and refugee advocates say the financial situation for some Syrian refugees across the country could grow more dire when they enter “Month 13” and shift from federal assistance to provincial assistance.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said his organization is holding workshops this month to warn Syrian refugees who cannot yet support themselves that they could receive less funding once they have been in Canada for more than a year.

“The bottom line is it’s going to mean further adjustment for these vulnerable families that they’re not expecting,” Mr. Friesen said in an interview.

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, 2015.

Mr. Friesen said the federal resettlement-assistance program and B.C. income assistance have similar base rates, but the federal program also includes a transportation allowance and housing supplement.

He said a family of three or more refugees living in B.C. could be out approximately $350 per month when it shifts to provincial assistance. A couple could receive about $225 less, while an individual could receive approximately $125 less, he said.

B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development in a statement acknowledged it is “aware that there will be a gap in the level of financial support for refugees who transition to provincial assistance.” The ministry said the issue was raised at a recent meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for immigration.

Mario Calla, executive director of Toronto-based COSTI Immigrant Services, said his organization expects Month 13 to be a problem for some Syrian refugees and is working with them to help mitigate any income reductions.

“We understand that there will be a reduction in income in Ontario for some depending on family size but we don’t know the amounts involved,” he wrote in an e-mail.

To prepare for the change, Mr. Calla said, his organization has contacted a number of community groups and mosques “to provide material and social supports as we work with the newcomers to help them transition into jobs.”

Vesna Mirosavljevic of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia said a refugee family of three or more people could receive $1,352 per month from the federal government. But once the family transitioned to the provincial system, she said it could see that amount reduced to $1,286 per month, though there are many factors to consider.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a statement said it is normal for refugees to transition to provincial or territorial assistance when income support from the federal government or private sponsors runs out.

The statement said the level of support provided by the federal government is “generally speaking” aligned with provincial and territorial rates, though cases vary depending on individual circumstances.

Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services in a brief statement said it is working with the federal government “to streamline transition from federal income support to provincial programs.”

Mr. Friesen said the B.C. government could mitigate the impact of the transition by raising its assistance rates.

“We are not suggesting preferential treatment for Syrian families or other newcomer refugee families. But what we’re suggesting is that the provincial government should look at the current B.C. income support rates for the benefit of all low-income families,” he said.

The B.C. government said it is continuing to look at the issue. The province said its supports for low-income individuals can include subsidized housing and child-care subsidies. It said refugees who are eligible for disability assistance could also receive more support than they did under the federal government.

The federal government said it could not provide employment numbers for Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada over the past year. However, it said it has received “anecdotal success stories of some Syrian refugees entering the labour market with the support of their local communities.”

Michael Qaqish, an Ottawa councillor who is serving as the city’s refugee liaison, said about half of refugees typically transition to provincial assistance after one year. However, he said he would not be surprised if that percentage was higher for the Syrian refugees.

“We’re seeing a lot of language as well as educational barriers that may make [finding work] difficult. But at the same time, there are also skills and trades that might be needed,” he said in an interview.

Hanadi Alsedawe, Ms. Ramadan’s eldest daughter at 27, said she would like to work. Her sister Maha has begun making greeting cards. However, their lack of English has been a challenge. Waiting lists for language classes are long and the sisters were only able to secure spots in September.

“We’re tired now, but in the future everything will be good. We hope our life will be better,” Ms. Alsedawe said through a translator.

The family recently learned it has been accepted into subsidized housing. The six will move into their new home in January.

With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa

 

A look at 2015 welfare incomes across Canada. Numbers are annual and by household. Totals include basic social assistance, additional social-assistance program benefits (such as a back-to-school allowance or clothing allowance) and child benefits.

British Columbia

Single employable person: $7,355

Couple, two children: $22,194

Alberta

Single employable person: $7,524

Couple, two children: $24,017

Saskatchewan

Single employable person: $8,341

Couple, two children: $26,048

Manitoba

Single employable person: $8,061

Couple, two children: $23,895

Ontario

Single employable person: $7,922

Couple, two children: $25,364

Quebec

Single employable person: $7,392

Couple, two children: $24,886

Source: Caledon Institute of Social Policy

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