As details begin to emerge about the plan to bring Syrian refugees in British Columbia, local social service agencies are gearing up to deal with the influx.
Their role: help the new arrivals integrate, learn the language and culture, and settle into school and work. But they’ve got their work cut out for them.
And as the clock ticks down to refugee arrival, some big questions remain unanswered.
When refugees touch down, likely next week, two organizations have the job of first contact.
At the airport, they’ll meet CANN. The organization says it’s currently staffing up with Arabic speakers to greet refugees when they arrive. When refugees get off the plane, CANN staff will assess their needs, provide food and warm clothing, along with a ride to temporary housing.
From here, the Immigrant Services Society takes over. The ISS has the main legal responsibility for government assisted refugees in BC. During their first two weeks, the ISS will be these refugees’ main point of contact, helping them make the initial transition to a new country.
But the ISS is also responsible for temporary housing, an area where big questions still linger. ISS current ‘Welcome House’ only has 13 suites, and a new facility won’t be ready until spring. Executive Director Chris Friesen says the organization is in talks with hotels, private building owners, and has even floated the idea of using a boat to provide temporary housing.
Initial ISS of BC Services
- Temporary housing
- Basic orientation
- Assistance with residency and tax forms
- Referral to social services
- Assistance finding permanent housing
- Bridge Clinic medical care
Spectrum of services
- English language training
- Employment Services
- Assistance with permanent housing
- Mental health support
- Referral to health services
- Childcare support
- Translation and interpretation
- Cultural mentoring
- Intensive one-on-one settlement support
The longer term job of caring for and integrating refugees falls into the hands of a network of more than 50 non-profit service providers spread out across the lower mainland.
Ninu Kang, of MOSAIC BC says in many cases, these services overlap so who refugees go to for help will depend on providers’ capacity and where the family lives.
“We are not competing with regards to our services. No matter what organization the refugee family ends up with, all of us have a mandate to make sure we’re making appropriate referrals to other organizations where that family will be best served.”
Many of the larger groups run on federal grants and employ a full staff, though some do welcome volunteers.
While service providers say they’re doing everything they can to get ready, some say there are already concerns about stretched capacity.
Christine Mohr with Options says without new money, there’s a limit to what they’ll be able to do.
“We’re looking at what we can do within our existing resources right now which isn’t going to take extra. And that’s tough, because we’re out and Surrey, and I think any service provider is going to tell you that given the growth in this community just generally, our services are really stretched.”
Tahzeem Kassam with DIVERSEcity echoes that worry. She says virtually all of their core services are already stretched.
The ISS has estimated 95% of arriving Syrians will need language training, but Kassam says at her organization, wait lists for ESL classes are already a year long. And she says the crucial ‘Moving Ahead‘ program, which offers one-on-one help for high needs refugees, is already over capacity.
Ottawa says it’s pledged $678 million for refugee restettlement, but it’s still unclear just how and where that money will be divided.
Kassam says that’s worrisome to the non-profit sector, whose contracts for key settlement services expire at the end of March, just as BC begins to serve the Syrian refugees.
“All of our contracts are up… none of us in the sector know what our contracts are going to look like as of April 1st.”
Those contracts cover key services such as ESL, Moving Ahead, child and youth programs, information and orientation settlement services.
Kassam says non-profits haven’t been able to get clarity from ministry representatives about whether funding proposals have been shelved, are being processed, or – crucially – could be beefed up to accommodate for new arrivals.
CKNW was unable to reach the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for comment on services funding.