Tazheem Kassam is the Chief Operating Officer for DIVERSEcity Community Services.
Photo: Ray Hudson


by Ray Hudson

Surrey: Our ability to communicate instantly across the world has provided easy access for people on one side of the world to watch the horrifying spectacle unfolding as millions of people flee the devastating conflicts in the middle east, Syria, Libya and north Africa in particular seeking refuge in Europe and beyond.

“Canada is committed to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years”, according to Caroline Daily, Manager, Resettlement Assistance Program, Immigrant Services Society of BC. “Some would be government sponsored (assisted) refugees (GARs) the rest would be privately sponsored refugees (PSRs), except for a relatively small number of claimants who show up at our borders seeking asylum.”

Canada accepts between 10,000 and 14,000 refugees per year. Daily says about 6,000 are government assisted, and the problem from her perspective is that of the commitment to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, is included in the regular commitment, not in addition to the regular commitment.

“That means, rather than bring refugees from Eritrea, the Congo or Iraq, the government would select Syrians first,” she said. “What we, and all the settlement agencies and those working with refugees, are asking for is that the commitment toward Syrian refugees comes in addition to the regular commitment. Otherwise, you’re bumping people who have been waiting for years and years and even decades in camps or in cities.”

Daily said the annual target for those Government Assisted Refugees coming to BC, is 800.

Tahzeem Kassam is the Chief Operating Officer for DIVERSEcity Community Services in Surrey, and she outlined the process of assisting the refugees on their arrival.

“If government assisted refugees are designated to come to BC, they are met at YVR by Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSBC) which has the Resettlement Assistance Program, or RAP contract with the Government of Canada. They are taken to the Vancouver Welcome House and they are housed and where staff work with them for two weeks, getting them oriented and into housing. At that point they are connected to other agencies offering settlement programs, such as DIVERSEcity. Privately sponsored refugees, are the responsibility of the Sponsor to meet the family at the airport and get them housed and oriented, and it’s at this point that agencies such as ours gets involved with similar orientation programs.”

One of the things that GAR newcomers have to deal with during the resettlement process is what is known as the transportation loan, where the refugee is expected to pay the government back for their transportation costs to Canada, medical exams and other documents (up to $10,000) for each person over 18 years of age.

The recent events concerning the large number of refugees from Syria, has again focused a spotlight on the call by advocates for refugees who are critical of the transportation and processing fee payback program who see this as an unnecessary extra burden for people who are trying to get started in a new country.

This includes Surrey Councillor Judy Villeneuve, who is concerned that repayment of the loan may result in serious pressures on these families “in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.”

The Canadian Council for Refugees says many refugees facing this debt postpone necessary education or upgrades while working low-paying jobs.

Villeneuve is working to have the government loans program scrapped and is making it an issue during the Federal election campaign. The BC Union of Municipalities and the national Federation of Canadian Municipalities have already endorsed her call to abolish the loans. Unfortunately, Villeneuve wasn’t available for comment prior to publication.

When asked about the impact of refugees on the municipal level, Kassam replied, “I do know that Surrey is the largest area of destination of the settlement of GARs, and if you look at the stats of ISSBC, over the last few years Surrey has received the most government sponsored refugees. Unfortunately, there’s no easily accessible way to know how many privately sponsored refugees there are.”

She said that refugees under the Resettlement Assistance Program can receive income assistance because it is federally sponsored, whereas the privately sponsored refugees are the financial responsibility of their sponsors and cannot qualify for government assistance for 10 years.

Kassam said that the trend over the last ten years or so is that they are serving more and more refugees and developing more programs that are specific to the needs of settling more refugees locally in Surrey.

“Following changes to the Immigrant Refugee Protection Act, in 2002,” she said, “we saw refugees coming to Canada who had more challenges. Some people had been in camps for a decade or more, or were born in camps and had never been to a school. At that time the provincial government was in an agreement with the federal government to administer the settlement dollars in BC, so w, as the sector, worked closely with the province to identify new and appropriate service delivery models because we hadn’t been serving that type of population before.”

This led to the development of the Moving Ahead Program, for which DIVERSEcity holds the service contract for the Surrey, North Delta and Langley region.

“We work in cooperation with Options Community Services, Pacific Community Resources Society and Langley Community Services Society, on this very intensive wrap around support services program for those refugees who need that kind of support. In the last fiscal year, we have served 500 clients,” she said. “It’s a program in demand, and has a substantial waiting list for it. It’s a good model because we work collaboratively with the likes of Options, SUCCESS and PICS.”

Kassam added that they also have about another five hundred refugees who are participating in the regular settlement services programs.

“The Moving Ahead Program is funded until 2016, but at this point we don’t know if it will continue to receive funding,” she commented. “It has been evaluated many times and we see that it supports clients, but from a fiscal perspective it’s costly because it’s about intensive support, but if the clients don’t get the help they need where does that leave them, and how much will that cost society in the long run?”

Does Canada do enough considering the huge numbers of refugees the public sees on the TV every day?

“When somebody says they need you, you don’t say ‘okay, I’ll book you in tomorrow or next week,” responds Kassam, “you want to respond immediately. I wouldn’t want someone to turn me away. But there’s the flip side of that where you can’t just take as many as you’d want because you don’t have the capacity to support their integration. From working in the sector, my practical side says, if we invite more people we have to put some resources behind it.”

“I go to these conferences, I hear from UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) the numbers. There are 16 million people who are displaced and without state. It’s a huge figure until it hits home for me that these are individual people that are somewhere in this world, and it takes the jolt of the child who drowned to bring it back to a personal level. So for whatever reason, this child has been the catalyst and people want to talk about the issue and engage in the conversation. But I want to say that the city has been engaging on this issue for a number of years. They are the contract holders of the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership and is also developing a city-wide strategy to engage Surrey residents with immigrants, which includes refugees, in the process of community building. It’s very much worth knowing about.”

The Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) is a consortium of government, public and private institutions, business, non-profit and community agencies working together to strengthen Surrey’s integration of newcomers and build a more inclusive and welcoming city. Learn about how Surrey LIP aims to improve immigrant and refugee integration in our community. – See more at: http://www.surreylip.ca