Changing face of Surrey presents challenges

posted on September 1, 2014

By Gavin Fisher, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

This story is part of a joint Vancouver Sun-Langara College project looking at the urban future of the rapidly growing Metro Vancouver region.

By Gavin Fisher, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

This story is part of a joint Vancouver Sun-Langara College project looking at the urban future of the rapidly growing Metro Vancouver region.

Tsering Yangkyi stirs a pot of tea she is making on the stove in a basement suite in Surrey. For Yangkyi, her husband Lhakpa Tsering and their three children, the Fleetwood neighbourhood where they currently reside is a far cry from the rural Tibetan settlement in India where they used to live.

Yangkyi and her family represent the changing face of the city as immigrants and refugees from countries around the world continue to settle in Surrey.

Thirty years from now the face of the city may be different from what it currently is, where South Asians make up the majority of immigrants in the city. Families like Yangkyi, Tsering and their children may be the future of Surrey, but there are many challenges up ahead for them and other newcomers.

Immigrants and refugees face a number of difficulties. Language and cultural barriers make it difficult for newcomers to access resources, and it also makes it challenging to find employment.

Surrey has become a top destination for government-assisted refugees: 32 per cent of government-assisted refugees in B.C. settled in Surrey in 2013. Among the many challenges these refugees face, one is having to pay back an interest-bearing loan provided by the government to cover transportation costs to Canada.

Surrey councillor Judy Villeneuve said refugees often carry $10-15,000 worth of debt from this loan. Villeneuve, who chairs Surrey’s social policy advisory committee, said the loan is an “immoral” barrier to put on government-sponsored refugees.

“They’re coming to Canada with no assets, often with no skills living in an urban environment, and often with major language and psychological barriers … so here we are putting all these barriers — besides the barriers that people naturally have — on these new immigrants.”

Villeneuve said the city has been fighting this loan for years, petitioning the minister of citizenship and immigration to eliminate the loan and cancel all outstanding loan debt. So far it has been unsuccessful, and the loans will continue to be a difficulty for government-assisted refugees coming to Surrey.

Yangkyi and her family are privately sponsored refugees; all refugees coming to Canada under the government’s Tibetan Resettlement Program are sponsored financially during their first year by a group of five individuals or an organization. However, the family also has a transportation loan from the government.

It’s going to be a steep amount for a family of five to pay back.

Another challenge facing Yangkyi and Tsering is not being able to obtain employment. It’s a common experience for both immigrants and refugees in Surrey.

Tsering was in the Indian army for 22 years, and Yangkyi worked in a grocery store; though they can speak some basic English neither of them have the necessary language skills to be able to find employment yet. They currently attend English classes at a nearby church every weekday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“We thought, let them go to school for a few months and see how they improve their English, then they start to look into jobs,” said Phuntsok Kakho, one of the five individuals assisting the family during their first year in Canada.

Kakho arranged for their English classes through DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society. Kakho, who came to Canada as a Tibetan refugee in 1971, said there are far more resources available now than there was then.

But are these resources enough to support the growing immigrant and refugee population until 2041?

Villeneuve said housing is a concern. Cheaper housing and lower living costs are one of the main reasons immigrants and refugees are settling in Surrey. But living conditions are often squalid. A report compiled by the city in 2009 showed that many immigrants and refugees in Surrey were living in overcrowded, mouldy, deteriorating basement suites.

“They’re really moving into what’s an older stock of housing and that’s actually many times being held as holding property, so they’re not very good living conditions either,” Villeneuve said.

Villeneuve said housing will continue to be an issue until more affordable housing is built.

“The federal government pulled out of building housing in the late 80s and early 90s, and since then it’s caused tremendous pressure on the system,” she said.

“Developers have not been building rental housing since the 1990s because they no longer have the tax breaks and land cost has become more expensive.”

She said the city will partner with BC Housing to tackle extreme cases where affordable housing is needed, but since housing is a provincial and federal responsibility the city can’t fund housing or tax for it.

Villeneuve said she hopes that future highrise construction in Surrey will result in more affordable housing units being built.

Trevor van Eerden, project consultant for the Surrey Welcoming and Inclusive Communities Project, said the question isn’t more resources but how those resources are used. Van Eerden, who is a principal at Pacific Employment and Education Resources, said there needs to be programs that encourage employers to hire immigrants and allow these immigrants to have language and skill training in the workplace.

“They’re much more likely to integrate when they can look after themselves and their family,” van Eerden said.

A program like this would be welcomed by Yangkyi and Tsering, who have three children to support.


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