Refugees need more than knitted toques and a warm welcome
By Judy Aldous, CBC News Posted: Dec 04, 2015 12:13 PM MT Last Updated: Dec 04, 2015 12:35 PM MT
Another 400 new Calgarians are expected by the end of December. Eventually about 1,300 people from Syria will soon call Calgary home.
And "home" isn't just a metaphor. It's the practical reality of shelter, food and language. Right here, in our city, in our neighbourhoods.
So are we ready? The answer seems to be, sorta.
Where to sleep
"We have three priorities — housing, housing and housing," said federalImmigration Minister John McCallum while on a whirlwind stop in Calgary.
That housing happens in two stages: temporary and long term.
In our city, notorious for low vacancy rates and high rent, both are a problem.
Once these new folks have picked up what few bags they have off the carousel at the airport, where will they go?
Home ... for now
Government assisted refugees — and there won't be many in this category until the New Year — will head to Bridgeland in the city's northeast.
That's where the one temporary accommodation for this category of refugee can be found in Calgary, called the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre.
There's only room for 80, and after 19 days they have to move on, hopefully to a more permanent home.
Two of the city's biggest landlords — Mainstreet Equity and Boardwalk Rental Communities — are offering up places to live at a discount.
Mainstreet has 200 apartments scattered all over the city that are ready to be occupied rent-free for three months, or at a reduced rate for 12.
"These places are fully renovated. We're not giving them dumps," says Mainstreet's CEO Bob Dhillon, whose parents fled Liberia for Canada.
No cheap rent
Dhillon says they'll do what the immigrant agencies want them to do.
"So if they say, I've got a single guy we'll recommend a one-bedroom or a bachelor. If we've got a family, we've got a townhouse in S.E. Calgary. So it's a mixed bag."
On the longer term, things get more complicated.
Refugees will get $695 a month from Ottawa for housing, which if you've scoured the rental pool in Calgary recently, won't go very far.
"What kind of a two-bedroom can you get for even $1,000?" says Leena Mahmoodi, who co-ordinates refugee services for Calgary Catholic Immigration Services (CCIS).
It could end up where many of the people trying to make Calgary their new home, will have to dip into their other federal money from child tax benefits and childcare allowance, to pay for housing.
No references in a refugee camp
And there's an additional challenge.
Many rental places want to see a work history, or a character reference before you ink a deal.
This won't work if you've just stepped off a plane from a Jordanian refugee camp.
"We are working with landlords to get around this," said Mahmoodi.
After they've spent a bulk of their assistance money on rent, Mahmoodi says she wonders "how do they eat?"
Dinner on the table
By going to the food bank, according to Calgary Food Bank CEO James McAra.
"Could you live on 30 grand?" he asks, referring to the money that a refugee family of four is expected to live on during their first year in Calgary.
McAra says food banks were not included in the planning meetings for the Syrian refugees.
"There's been no conversation about food."
He says they are now "inserting ourselves" into conversations around refugees.
The local lingo
The vast majority of us take for granted the ability to easily ask which bus takes you to Walmart.
But when you've just arrived from the Middle East, this can be a major challenge.
Once the newcomers have unpacked, they face the small mountain of paperwork necessary to integrate into our social system: ID cards, health-care cards, social insurance numbers, etc.
That requires English, which many refugees don't speak.
Mahmoodi with CCIS says, "It's going to be very challenging for us to provide the services initially."
Her organization has only three translators here in Calgary, who already service 300 people on an annual basis.
Arabic speakers apply here
Admasu Tachble, who manages the settlement programs at the Centre for Newcomers, says he hopes to tap into $1 million in new provincial money.
With it, he wants to hire two more Arabic speakers to help out.
He's also hoping Calgary's Arabic speakers will volunteer to help out.
But in the long run, people will have to learn English, and ESL classes are already packed.
Even those with the basics face a three to six-month waiting list just to get into a class, and that's a long time to be unable to communicate with your child's teacher.
This is one area that worries Hieu Van Ngo.
Van Ngo says when he arrived as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990 language services were better than they are now. He is now a professor of social work at the University of Calgary.
"If we don't give people this very important tool then they will not be able to integrate."
Ready or not
None of this says Van Ngo is a deal breaker.
"We did it when we had little infrastructure in 1979 and yet we brought 50,000 Vietnamese people over here. We can do it now."
So. Very soon a lot of Syrian refugees will be coming to Calgary.
Here to make lives for themselves far from the fighting.
The details are falling into place,
But these are the first steps. What happens next, in terms of social integration, that's where the heavy lifting starts.
CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. It's called Calgary at a Crossroads.