Year Ahead 2017

A milestone looms for Canada’s Syrian refugees: ‘Month 13’

Thousands of Syrians will soon be collecting social assistance. But that’s not surprising—nor is it all bad news.

Hagop Binajian, 50, who was sponsored from Syria over a year ago, works in a home he is doing renovations in as part of his business, in Newmarket, Ontario on November 25, 2016. (Photograph by Marta Iwanek)

Hagop Binajian, 50, who was sponsored from Syria over a year ago, works in a home he is doing renovations in as part of his business, in Newmarket, Ontario on November 25, 2016. (Photograph by Marta Iwanek)

Over the past 13 months, the Trudeau government has welcomed more than 35,700 Syrian refugees to Canada—an average of 2,746 per month, or about 90 a day. Among the very first arrivals was Hakoub Binajian, a Syrian-Armenian who fled war-torn Aleppo with his wife and two adult sons. The family touched down in Toronto, via commercial jet, on Nov. 24, 2015, two weeks before government charters started transporting refugees by the planeload.

Safe in his new country, Binajian did what he’s always done: he went straight to work.

“We had a warehouse where we were collecting furniture and clothing that the newcomers would need,” says Apkar Mirakian of Toronto’s Armenian Community Centre, which has co-sponsored nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees. “One of our community members had a truck to deliver the goods but he was alone. So here comes Hakoub, saying: ‘I will help you.’ ”

Three months later, Binajian scrounged together enough money to buy his own cube truck—and print some black-and-white business cards advertising his “moving and transportation services.” A few months after that, he expanded into general contracting, doing the kind of handiwork he once did in Syria, from painting to installing drywall to laying patio stones. (Back home, Binajian was building a restaurant that he never got to finish.) As satisfied clients continue to spread the word, his calendar is filling up fast.

“The first thing I thought when I came to Canada was: ‘I should work and buy a house, and then I will think I am settled,’ ” says Binajian, now 50. “If not next year, the year after that I should be able to buy one.”

Not bad for a man who, less than two years ago, escaped the gunfire in his former neighbourhood with nothing more than two pairs of jeans and three shirts. “What he is doing is exceptional,” Mirakian says. “And I know other people who are trying to start businesses. The initiative is there, they would like to get ahead, and they want to show the people of Canada that they can do whatever is necessary to be successful.”

MORE: Saving family no. 417

For now, at least, Binajian is the exception, not the norm. As Syrian refugees begin to mark year one of their new lives in Canada—and enter “Month 13,” the moment their federal assistance cheques or private sponsorship funding runs out—it is clear that most will not be ready to survive on their own. Although the exact figures aren’t yet known, somewhere between 50 and 90 per cent are expected to transition to provincial welfare rolls.

As shocking as that may sound—thousands of Syrians, welcomed with open arms, now collecting social assistance—it is hardly surprising. For decades, research has shown that resettled refugees often require a period on welfare after their first year in Canada as they continue to learn the language, adjust to unfamiliar surroundings and search for employment. Looking forward, the more pressing question is how long they will need those welfare payments, and whether more can be done to help as many as possible find jobs sooner rather than later.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with a Syrian refugee during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

Justin Trudeau shakes hands with a Syrian refugee during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

“Do I think all the Syrian refugees are going to be in the workforce and self-sufficient after their first year in Canada? Clearly not,” says Naomi Alboim, a policy studies professor at Queen’s University and former deputy minister of citizenship in Ontario. “Was that a realistic expectation in the first place, given this particular group? No, it wasn’t. But let’s make a distinction between being on social assistance for the rest of their lives and being on social assistance for a transitional period until they have the skills necessary to enter the labour market.”

Some stakeholders who work on the front lines of refugee resettlement are actually surprised that the spectre of “Month 13” is generating so much attention. Canada, after all, has been resettling refugees for decades—more than 49,500 in the five-year span between 2010 and 2014, for example—and every day, Month 13 quietly arrives for one family or another.

ORAL HISTORY: Inside the first flight of Syrian refugees to Canada

“This is kind of like Y2K: everybody is panicking and I’m not sure the reason,” says Chris Friesen, who heads the settlement programs at the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. “My sense is: stay calm, carry on, we’ve done this for the last 50 years, and we are going to continue.”

The only difference, of course, is that this particular group of resettled Syrians arrived much faster, in much greater numbers—and with far more political baggage—than previous cohorts. Canadians rallied behind the Liberals’ $678-million plan to bring them here in rapid time, and they raised millions more in private donations to #WelcomeRefugees. But now that the initial euphoria has begun to wear off, some Canadians—fair or not—will judge the historic operation not by how many lives were saved, but by how these Syrians give back to their new society.

In that sense, 2017 will be a critical gauge.

MORE: Where the first 25,000 Syrian refugees settled in Canada

A stat to consider: between 1980 and 2015, Canada resettled 601,436 refugees who fled war and persecution around the globe. Translation: we have indeed done this before, despite the fact that many Canadians had never heard the term “refugee resettlement” until Alan Kurdi’s little body washed ashore 15 months ago.

Another stat: despite being a world leader in refugee resettlement, it has always accounted for a tiny slice of Canada’s overall immigration pie. During that five-year span between 2010 and 2014, for instance—when Canada opened its doors to 49,500 resettled refugees—that number amounted to barely three per cent of the 1.3 million immigrants who landed here during the same period. Even the 2016 target set by the Liberals (44,800 resettled refugees, most of them Syrian) is less than 15 per cent of the overall target of 300,000 new immigrants.

One more stat: approximately 1.27 million people in Canada collect provincial or territorial social assistance. So even if every single newly arrived Syrian refugee ends up on welfare (which they won’t) that would increase the overall caseload by 2.8 per cent. More than a blip, for sure, but hardly enough to overwhelm the system.

How many Syrians will need welfare when they reach Month 13? Again, time will tell. But previous data provides a fairly educated guess of what’s to come.

Privately sponsored refugees (people like Binajian, who tend to be higher educated, have some command of English or French, and enjoy family connections in Canada) typically hit the ground running. According to a recent study released by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, approximately three in 10 privately sponsored refugees who arrived between 2002 and 2012 needed social assistance during their second year in Canada. By year five, that number had dropped to 26 per cent.

MORE: Getting here was easy. Now for the hard part.

For government-assisted refugees (GARs), the road toward self-sufficiency—if reached at all—can be much longer. And for obvious reasons.

Unlike privately sponsored refugees, who are specifically chosen by their sponsors, government-assisted refugees are referred to Canada by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) because they are considered the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: single mothers with children, torture victims suffering from PTSD and the physically and mentally disabled. Most are from rural areas, have no formal education, and don’t speak a word of English or French. “Since 2002, the government of Canada has consistently said that vulnerability is the primary consideration when selecting government-assisted refugees,” Alboim says. “To the UNHCR, that is music to their ears because they need resettlement places for the most vulnerable refugees, who they determine really cannot stay where they are.”

In other words, she says, people need to remember that refugee resettlement is first and foremost a humanitarian operation, not an economic immigration stream.

MORE: How the UNHCR’s refugee resettlement process works

“We asked for vulnerable people because they were the ones who most needed our help, and so we certainly received very vulnerable people,” John McCallum, the minister of citizenship, refugees and immigration, tells Maclean’s. “But the other side of that coin is it will take longer for them to adjust to life in Canada. When you ask for vulnerable people you can’t expect them to adapt completely overnight.”

The research certainly bears that out. Among the GARs who came to Canada between 2002 and 2012, most needed social assistance during their second year here (93 per cent at the beginning of the year; 69 per cent by the end.) By year five, 41 per cent of government-assisted refugees were still collecting welfare.

At last count, the Syrian refugee cohort includes close to 19,000 GARs. Assuming previous trends hold true—i.e. 93 per cent apply for social assistance at the beginning of year two—that would translate to 17,670 Syrians on welfare. That number would drop to 12,730 by the end of year two, and decrease again, to 7,790, by year five.

“This is what we would offer to any other Canadian in a time of need, and this is a time of need,” says Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. “We also have to take the long view here. This is an investment. Yes, it is costly in the beginning, but we know that over time refugees more than repay the cost of their initial government support.”

Look no further than the “boat people” who arrived from Southeast Asia between 1979 and 1981. A landmark study of their integration found that after 10 years in Canada, 86 per cent were working and speaking English with some proficiency, and they were less likely to use social services than the average Canadian. They also had high levels of self-employment (one in five).

A more timely analysis conducted by VanCity, Canada’s largest community credit union, found that Syrian refugees in B.C. will generate at least $563 million in local economic activity over the next 20 years.

“History tells a story, and when you look at former refugee populations—like the Hungarians in ’56, like the Ismailis in ’72, like the Southeast Asians in ’79-’80, like the Kosovars in ’99, and so on—yes, they needed some further support to integrate,” Friesen says. “These Syrians, these future Canadians, are going to contribute in innumerous ways in the future, but there will be a period of time when they need help, too.”

Tamar Sharifah is among those who will need some extra help. A 32-year-old who worked for an accounting firm in Syria before fleeing across the border to Lebanon, she now lives in a Mississauga, Ont., apartment with her 65-year-old father, Hasham, a former carpenter who suffers from severe dementia. She is her dad’s full-time caregiver, which has left her unable to attend English classes.

Hasham Sharifah, 65, suffers from dementia. He lives with his daughter, Tamar, an accountant who takes care of him full-time. (Photograph by Nick Iawanyshyn)

Hasham Sharifah, 65, suffers from dementia. He lives with his daughter, Tamar, an accountant who takes care of him full-time. (Photograph by Nick Iawanyshyn)

“He sometimes gets mad at me and starts to hit me,” she says, speaking through an Arabic translator. “He is out of his mind, but he is my father.”

They landed in Canada on Jan. 29. Month 13 is fast approaching. “I am so thankful to the Canadian government but I don’t want any more money from the government,” Tamar continues, sitting in her living room. “I want to support myself, I want to learn the language, and after that I hope to find work in my field, maybe at a bank.”

That desire to work—that drive to give something back to the country that took them in—is very strong among Syrian refugees, stakeholders say. But the refugees, like the Canadian public at large, need to be patient, says Mario Calla, the executive director of Toronto’s COSTI Immigrant Services.

“Right now, the main challenge is learning English,” Calla says. “Among the government-assisted refugees, that is even more difficult because only about 10 per cent who arrived here could speak some English. I had one man come in here and tell me: ‘I drove a 32-wheeler truck in Syria and I can do that here. I want a job.’ Of course, he was telling me this through an interpreter. I said: ‘Take some English classes and we will find you a job.’ ”

Like social assistance figures, Ottawa has no firm stats on how may Syrians have found work. But early indications suggest the number is small, yet slowly growing. Calla has seen some Syrians land jobs in the IT field, and at grocery stores and bakeries. In B.C., a few have found jobs in construction and the trades. In parts of Manitoba and Alberta, farmers have hired Syrian refugees who worked in agriculture back home.

In Antigonish, N.S., one family has famously opened a small chocolate-making business—Peace by Chocolate—after being forced to leave their old factory behind in Syria. The Prime Minister specifically mentioned the new company during a recent summit at the United Nations in New York.

“People are coming with great work ethic, a sense of dignity and self-respect, and it won’t take long before they establish themselves and help to move our economy forward,” says Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council. “A lot of the individuals who are working-age adults have experience in sectors that are experiencing shortages in our province. People are coming with agricultural backgrounds, transportation, trades and construction, domestic services, tailoring, food preparation. They are good fits for our labour market needs.”

In fact, LeBlanc says close to 20 per cent of the Syrians in New Brunswick have already found full- or part-time work. “People will say: ‘Well, that means 80 per cent are not working,’ ” he says. “I think that is a misnomer. All of the working-age adults are in a training period. You wouldn’t say to somebody at a university that they’re not working, because they are working toward participating in the labour market. All these adults are working really hard to develop a second or third language.”

In Alberta, Fariborz Birjandian sees the same determination—and he would know. Himself a former refugee, arriving from Iran 30 years ago, he is now CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. However, Birjandian also cautions against using job numbers as the only indicator of success. “When you have a family of seven or eight coming to Canada, learning the language, dealing with all the traumas and difficulties they had, my indicators of success are: Are the kids doing well at school? Are they healthy?” he says. “We shouldn’t just be asking: Did the parents get a $12-an-hour job? We need to follow these children to see where they go. That is the investment that pays off.”

McCallum agrees. “This is a long-term process and all of them will not immediately be productive, functioning citizens,” the minister says. “It will take time. We’ve seen this with past waves of refugees, and I think the one heartening piece of information is that the children of refugees actually do really well, just as well as other Canadians, or even better.”

Which means Month 130 should be a lot more telling than Month 13.

“All this talk about Month 13 kind of takes me aback because it sounds like: ‘Oh my goodness, there is a cliff there,’ ” Calla says. “No such thing. It has always been like this if people take more than 12 months to learn English and to get established. But they do get established and they become productive members of our society.”

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