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Politics Many Syrian refugees relying on food banks to feed families

Some traditional Syrian foods that were prepared by Najwa Habood in Calgary, Alberta. She is helping refugees settle and recommends a pantry full of staples like Basmati rice, chickpeas, lentils, bulgar, dried mint and garlic. etc. Shown in photo is a traditional dish of fruit spreads and Halawa.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Many recently arrived Syrian refugees are relying on food banks to feed their families, forcing some locations to stock specific Middle Eastern food, enlist the help of translators and extend their operating hours.

Some food banks have seen hundreds of Syrians walk through their doors, while others are anticipating more of a rush when financial support for the newcomers runs out.

A lot of them appear to be government-assisted refugees, who live off a one-time startup sum and ongoing monthly payments equal to provincial social-assistance rates for one year.

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For instance, that amounts to about $5,455 for a one-time payment and $1,508 a month for a family of four in Ontario, and $5,440 to start followed by $1,349 a month in British Columbia.

Children under 18 years old also qualify for the child tax benefit, but many families have to wait for up to three months to receive that money, says Gwen Bouchard of the Gloucester Emergency Food Cupboard in Ottawa.

"I think it is challenging for them and so that's why we're seeing them at the food bank right now."

Ms. Bouchard said privately sponsored Syrian refugees are less likely to show up at a food bank because they have full support from their sponsorship group, which is required to take care of their needs for one year.

She said the Gloucester food bank has served 70 to 80 Syrian families recently, translating to more than 400 people above and beyond those they already help.

Oriole Food Space, a food bank in Toronto, has seen a "tremendous" number of Syrian refugees come in for food parcels over the past couple of months, with an average of six showing up each day they are open, according to manager Daffodil Davis.

Their unique needs are identified as soon as they walk through the door, as many speak little to no English. "Some of the families will bring a translator or will bring maybe a relative … who speaks English," Ms. Davis said. "We do have our own translator here that helps to navigate the process."

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English food labelling can also confuse Syrian refugees, who are not familiar with the language or Western food items, so many food banks have Arabic labelling in place. For Syrians who can't read Arabic, the Gloucester centre even provided a phonetic translation of Arabic words for various types of food to help volunteers identify items for those individuals.

The food banks have also had to collect Middle Eastern food staples for the Syrian refugees, some of which they do not typically stock, such as halal meat, lentils and chickpeas.

Glen Pearson, co-director of the London Food Bank in Ontario, said his organization has put together special vegetarian hampers for Syrians. "It's not the traditional fare that we give out. And it also means that we have to independently procure because it doesn't come in from the mass public donations," Mr. Pearson said.

Although some food banks have extended their hours or opened special drop-in times to deal with the increased demands, none are overwhelmed yet. Alex Nixon, community liaison at the Richmond Food Bank in B.C., said things will remain under control if donations keep coming in.

In Alberta, the Interfaith Food Bank Society of Lethbridge has only had one Syrian refugee family ask for help.

However, executive director Danielle McIntyre is concerned that some will start showing up when their financial assistance runs out after a year. "We're looking one year down the road. Are the existing supports going to be enough that they are going to be able to live independently after the initial funding is gone or are they going to roll over onto our social programs?"

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In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it is not aware of the "prevalence or frequency" of food-bank use by refugees, but it acknowledged that resettlement providers often teach newcomers where to obtain necessities on a budget, such as at food banks.

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