One Year Later: How Have Syrian Refugees Settled? What Can the Church Do to Help?

21 March 2017

It has been more than 12 months since the first 26,172 of the 40,081 Syrian Refugees who have now settled in Canada first arrived. Canadians were generous and warm-hearted, working hard to prepare for the arrival of these individuals and families coming from the Middle East and fleeing the life-threatening dangers of their war-torn nation, Syria.

Click on this map to visit, where you can learn
locations of welcoming communities and settlement service providers.

Whether they were government sponsored refugees or part of the private and blended sponsorship programs, these newcomers needed to hit the cold hard Canadian winter ground running. They had 12 months of financial support from the government and private citizens to help them settle into a new home, learn a new language, find a job and establish their children, and become self-sufficient. For anyone, this is a very challenging task.

“Month 13” Has Arrived

As of March 1, 2017, that first group of 26,172 are now in or beyond their “Month 13,” which marks the end of the committed financial support from government and private sponsors. The remaining 13,909 are not far behind.

How are they faring? Are they transitioning well? Were they able to integrate successfully into their new Canadian lives? A report from the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration called After the Warm Welcome: Ensuring that Syrian Refugees Succeed indicates some areas of concern in regards to how the newcomers have adapted.

Witnesses to the committee, from various branches of Syrian refugee sponsorship, echoed a number concerns about the wellbeing of Syrian refugees as Month 13 loomed.

Home Sweet Home

The sustainability of housing for refugees entering Month 13 is a significant concern. Out of kindness, many property owners agreed to a one-year arrangement for new families; but some of these may see their rent increase once that period is past. Witnesses to the committee noted that without their current financial sponsorship, some families in some regions would not be able to afford their current housing, and would need to move again. In some cases, cheaper housing is simply not available. Additionally, in some provinces, the welfare rate will not cover the extra amount for rent.

Month 13 could mean yet another upheaval for children who have just settled into a new school; and a change in newly familiarized transportation methods, possibly impacting newly acquired jobs. While privately sponsored refugees may have ongoing support, government supported refugees are particularly vulnerable.

HOW TO HELP: If you or someone you know has connections to low-income or affordable housing opportunities, a knowledgeable real-estate agent or property owner, click on the map above for more details and contact a local settlement agency or private sponsorship group within your area to help.

Language: The gateway to success

One of the most significant hurdles to success for refugees is the ability to speak and write in English or French. While it may be easier for children to pick up a new language, it can be very difficult for an adult between 40 and 60 to make similar progress within one year.

Language is the gateway to job success and navigating through day-to-day life. Beyond being essential in a work environment, communicating with a doctor or dentist, or simply answering the phone can be a daunting task for many newcomers.

Refugees are eager to learn, but in many cases there is a shortage of language classes (particularly in northern and southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia). One Vancouver Community College reported a wait list of over 800 students.

Another hindrance to language learning is the availability of classes that offer childcare. Without it, spouses are forced to attend one at a time. For many women, this means a longer wait time to access training, as well as longer periods of isolation.

HOW TO HELP: Your church might consider offering a “conversation circle”. This is an informal social opportunity for newcomers to learn and practice their new language, while at the same time building friendships and community. Conversation circles could be gender, family, or age-based. Consider offering them during the day, or during evening hours so couples can attend together.

Physical, Dental and Mental Health Challenges

Many refugees arrived in Canada with pre-existing medical and dental issues that require ongoing medical treatment beyond the 12-month commitment. Sadly, during the sponsorship vetting process, some refugees were hesitant to mention any health concerns for fear of rejection. In Toronto over 500 dental emergencies were logged by patients in so much pain they were not able to sleep at night.

These health issues can affect so many other areas. Unmanaged medical conditions can lead to the inability to maintain a job. In addition, missing front teeth or problems that prevent the person from being able to smile or speak could make securing employment difficult.

Ongoing mental health care is also vital. While refugees experience great joy and relief upon arrival, mental health issues can present months later. Many Syrian refugees experienced significant trauma and stress from the civil war, including torture, personal loss, and forced separation from their loved ones, from their homes, communities, and livelihoods. Jessica Ferne of the International Development and Relief Foundation says that “without adequate and sustainable mental health services, education and employment efforts would be fundamentally undermined.”

The lack of access to translation with medical professionals was also a concern here, making communicating the patients’ health issues and treatment plan very difficult. One witness told the committee about a woman who did not learn about her breast cancer diagnosis until after her third hospital visit where she happened to encounter an Arabic speaker.

HOW TO HELP: If you or someone you know is able to speak Arabic, contact a local settlement agency (see the link in the map above) or a known private sponsorship group within your area and volunteer your time and ability.


Many refugee children experience an expected adjustment period when entering a new school, and do adjust well. However, large gaps in education were noted in children from Grade 3 and up, requiring intensive learning to catch up.

Additionally, family members need support because in Syria parental participation in a child’s education, something highly encouraged in Canada, is not the norm. A parent’s difficulty in assisting their child with their education may be compounded by their own struggle with literacy or language.

HOW TO HELP: Offer tutoring services to help school aged children catch up. Befriend a mom who is new to your child’s school or neighbourhood, help her learn and navigate the education system.

Vulnerable youth and young adults

When it comes to successful adaptation to Canadian culture, the most vulnerable are those in their teens to early twenties. In addition to the normal teenage pressures of forming their own identity, physical development, and peer pressure, they also have to navigate a new culture, learn a new language – either French or English (in some cases both), and often need to catch up on lost years of learning. Some have to balance the burden of school work with part-time employment to help support the family.

It is very important to help this particular demographic land in a positive and productive way in order to steer clear of the darker societal influences.

It was noted that within this age group are vulnerable young mothers who tend to be socially isolated, often with large numbers of children and who sometimes posses limited or no formal education. The immediate need here is for language training that also provides childcare.

HOW TO HELP: Offer a peer-to-peer opportunity where young people can relate to others their age, and in similar circumstances. It is important that they know they are not alone.  Again, provide language skill learning were possible, either formally, or informally.

It takes a family

Until the war in Syria is over, for many families, there will be no peace of mind. The effects of family separation on refugee families can be devastating, and the loss of support (emotional and practical, for example childcare support) hinders their integration into their new society.

The 2017 Immigration Levels Plan includes an increase of 5% (80K to 84K), but the additional 4,000 is for all global regions, which means that it may be a very long time until Syrian refugees are able to see their families reunited safely on Canadian soil. Overall, those with extended family support fare much better.

HOW TO HELP:  Contact your local MP and let them know that you support an increase in the number allocations, and the swift processing of Family Re-unification applications.

Many of these issues are things we take for granted in our day-to-day life. However, for a Syrian refugee, they are critical necessities in their establishing themselves well in their new country.

Other “Month 13” Opportunities for the Church in Canada

1. Think outside of the Private or Blended Visa sponsorship – connect with the most vulnerable group of refugees, the government sponsored refugees who have no back-up support and may not yet have found supportive community. Contact a local settlement agency and volunteer time or donate (check the list here).

2. There is an opportunity for employers to provide eager newcomers work that would help them integrate into Canadian society. If you are an employer or business owner, reach out to a local settlement agency to find out more. There is a need to provide jobs that help them transition to areas where they may already be trained. Help protect them from those who look to take advantage. Refugees are vulnerable to being offered “under the table jobs” that would pay significantly less than what the job they are doing is worth. For ideas see the list of 2016 Employer Awards for Refugee Employment, who they were and what they did well.

This is the third in a series of three posts in our One Year Later Series.

Author: Anita Levesque

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