What happens when Syrian refugees arrive in Vancouver

posted on December 1, 2015

By Mike Howell, Vancourier |

So, they’re coming.

Maybe not as many by the end of the year as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised but about 400 Syrian refugees will soon arrive at Vancouver International Airport.

By Mike Howell, Vancourier |

So, they’re coming.

Maybe not as many by the end of the year as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised but about 400 Syrian refugees will soon arrive at Vancouver International Airport.

And when they do, they will be welcomed by SUCCESS’s community airport newcomers’ network, which will escort refugees from the plane and through Canada Customs.

With temperatures beginning to drop, that welcoming will likely include outfitting refugees with winter clothing and boots, unless they are being sponsored privately by faith groups and citizens, who will be there to welcome their new friends and help resettle them.

Of the 400 refugees, half are expected to be privately sponsored and the others will be government-assisted. Those under the government’s care will be put in a taxi and driven to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. building on Drake Street in Vancouver.

“Then we kick in, providing transitional housing, first language supports and all those technical things like opening bank accounts, issuing permanent resident cards, social insurance number cards and Care cards,” said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the society, who spoke to the Courier to outline what happens when refugees arrive at the airport.

Friesen is on the front lines of resettling the Syrian refugees. From now until the end of February, he expects up to 2,000 Syrians will come through Vancouver before they resettle in Metro Vancouver and other parts of the province.

With readers asking many questions about the resettlement process, Friesen provided some of the answers, including costs and how many will actually stay in Vancouver.

When a government-assisted refugee arrives at your office on Drake Street, how long do they stay in the housing units?
Normally, they stay about 15 nights until they can find permanent accommodation. We have housing search workers who do just that — look for accommodation for them. Then they are destined to their rental accommodation and the Government of Canada provides household goods and a furniture package for them to get them started.

What does that include?
Sheets, towels, blankets, a bed, mattress, a television, dining room table, pots and pans. The basics of basics.

How many refugees will end up in Vancouver?
It will depend on the housing offers. Historically, it’s about 10 per cent. But, you know, things are happening. [Editor’s note: At least three developers have offered properties in Vancouver to house refugees.]

What kind of funding is available for government-assisted refugees?
All government-assisted refugees are placed on federal government resettlement assistance. This is for 12 months and that income support is exactly the same as provincial welfare rates. So a family of four, with two children under 19, you’re looking at $750 for a shelter allowance. The total amount is $1,450 per month for shelter, food, transportation. Same as welfare.

What happens after that one year?
At the end of one year, if they’re not fluent in English or they’re dealing with medical issues, or whatever it may be, then they are facilitated from the federal system on to the provincial system and carry on. The only difference between a B.C. resident on welfare and a refugee is the fact that refugees have this interest-bearing loan. So part of the immigration procedure overseas — the medical examination and the one-way ticket from the refugee camp to Vancouver — is bundled up in an interest-bearing loan that can be as high, or more than $10,000, depending on the size of the family and whether there are any adult children over 19, who could have their own independent loan from their parents. [Editor’s note: The government recently announced it will waive the loans for Syrian refugees but hasn’t committed to an across-the-board decision for refugees from other countries.]

Are refugees allowed to work when they get here?
They are allowed to work from the moment they arrive. They’re allowed to access provincial health care coverage from the date that they arrive. They arrive as permanent residents, so they have the same rights and responsibilities as any resident.

If they work during the first year of resettlement, what happens to the income provided to them by government?
If they are working during that first year, currently they can work up to 50 per cent of their monthly income without dollar-for-dollar deductions. If they go to the provincial system — after the first year with that same job — then they are deducted dollar for dollar.

Generally, who privately sponsors refugees?
Faith groups, individual Canadians, people who participate in the Group of Five [a category where five people work as a group to fund a refugee]. So they raise the money based on guidelines provided by the federal government on their website. They take care of all the financial needs, the income support for the year. They provide the furniture and the household goods, they find the apartment or the basement suite. They basically support the refugee to settle in their first year.

How much does that cost?
Depending on where you want them to live. So most end up in a basement suite in Surrey, basically on the same monthly income as a government-assisted-refugee. However, there are more and more private sponsorship groups that will pay off the interest-bearing loan on behalf of the refugee, as part of their third-party fundraising.

So to sponsor a family of four, what’s the cost?
I would look at about $30,000. That pretty much covers everything. Again, they won’t be living on the west side of Vancouver.

There are also Syrians who show up at the airport who weren’t privately sponsored or chosen by government. They have somehow arranged to get on a flight to Vancouver and come here seeking asylum. Are there many people who fit into that category?
It’s small numbers, but they’re steady. Since April 1, there have been 14 Syrian claimants. They go through the immigration and refugee board and will get a hearing to determine their admissibility to Canada.

During the recent federal election campaign, the Conservatives chided the Liberals for promising to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Although they won’t all be here by the end of December, it sounds like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is convinced that goal will be reached by the end of February 2016. What do you make of that?

These are strange times when you come out of a decade of negative discourse, when you’re trying to do your job on the basis of incorrect labelling by the previous government as queue-jumping welfare cheats and all the other negative stuff. And now you’ve got everybody who wants to help. So it’s a 360-degree turnabout.

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