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Settling Syrian Refugees: Lessons from the GTA

Apr 24, 2017
Kareem El-Assal Kareem El-Assal
Research Associate,
Education and Immigration Research

Since November 2015, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has been the leading destination of Syrian refugee arrivals to Canada, welcoming about one-in-five of the 40,000 newcomers.1 Given that some 20,000 Syrian refugee applications have been finalized or remain under process,2 we can expect thousands of more Syrians to land in the GTA.

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn from Syrians themselves about their experiences in the GTA. I heard from 7 Syrian refugees, 4 settlement workers, and a local community organization that has been active in the Syrian initiative since November 2015. Overall, Syrians feel grateful towards Canada and the many Canadians who have helped them settle in their new home country. For example, one said that possessing Canadian permanent resident status allows his compatriots to feel like their lives matter.

However, Syrians have been confronted by 4 prominent challenges which have affected their settlement experiences in the GTA.

Here’s a summary of the challenges.

Lack of settlement services capacity

Due to the lack of Arabic speakers and written information provided by settlement agencies, several Syrians explained that they have encountered difficulties orienting themselves in the GTA. Some expressed frustration with lack of settlement agency capacity, due to under-staffing, which caused delays in opening bank accounts, and getting their permanent residence and health cards.

Finding adequate housing

Unlike privately-sponsored refugees (PSRs), who have had their housing arranged for them by their Canadian sponsors, government-assisted refugees (GARs) have had difficulties finding housing in the GTA.3 Between November 2015 and February 2016, many GARs arrived to the region within a short period of time, which meant that settlement agencies did not have enough time to find them permanent accommodation.

Affordability remains a significant issue due to the GTA’s high living costs. For example, testimony provided at a parliamentary committee hearing cited a family in Toronto receiving $1,070 in monthly federal government support and paying $1,000 per month in rent.4 GARs also tend to have larger families than PSRs which makes it difficult for them to find appropriate housing within their price range.

Language training access

Syrians are experiencing 4 types of barriers which have hurt their ability to learn English.

First, since Canada has prioritized the resettlement of the most vulnerable, many Syrians have arrived with little knowledge of either official language. Some also have low Arabic literacy levels, which means that greater efforts are needed to get their English proficiency up to standard. In general, GARs have less official language proficiency than PSRs.5

A second barrier has been the lack of sufficient capacity of settlement agencies in the GTA to offer English as a second language (ESL) classes to Syrians. Consequently, some Syrians are enduring long enrolment wait times. This has been exacerbated by settlement agencies shutting down ESL classes over the summer of 2016 due to lack of funding.6

Third, mothers are experiencing difficulties accessing ESL classes due to lack of available or affordable childcare. Consequently, some are unable to attend classes since they must tend to their children.

Finally, ESL classes are often offered during the day, which means that Syrians who have secured day jobs are in a position where they must sacrifice one over the other.

Employment barriers

Finding work is difficult for Syrians due to their lack of English proficiency, Canadian work experience, and recognized qualifications. For instance, while a significant number of them possess trades skills, their poor command of English bars them from applying their talents in the labour market.7

Moreover, Syrians are impeded from accessing employment services due to lack of Arabic language resources on key topics such as how to find work, wages, and workplace etiquette. They also require more information on topics such as qualification assessment, admission into post-secondary education,8 and Canadian work culture.9

Support Syrians and they will support us back

Syrians have been overwhelmed by the support of Canadians. Conversely, they are experiencing common settlement challenges which need to be addressed to ensure they can reach their full potential in Canada. By heeding lessons learned since November 2015, Canadians will eventually find themselves repaid for the warmth and generosity they have shown to Syrians.

Canadian Immigration Summit 2017: Innovating at 150 and Beyond

On May 9-10, the Conference Board hosts its 3rd annual Canadian Immigration Summit in Ottawa to discuss innovations that could help build an even stronger immigration system over the next 150 years. Distinguished speakers include ministers Ahmed Hussen, Laura Albanese, Kathleen Weil, Lena Diab, and Donald Arseneault.

Several sessions look at how Canadians can support the refugee labour market integration process.

Regulated immigration consultants are eligible to earn 13 CPD hours by attending the Summit.

Make sure to sign up!


Related Webinar

Alternative Career Solutions for Skilled Immigrants
The Conference Board of Canada, February 2, 2017


1    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). #WelcomeRefugees: Key figures. Ottawa: IRCC, 2016. (accessed: April 20, 2017); IRCC. Canada – Admissions of Syrian Refugees by Province/Territory and Census Metropolitan Area Destination and Immigration Category, November 4th, 2015 – September 30th, 2016. Ottawa: IRCC Research DataMart, September 2016.

2    IRCC. #WelcomeRefugees.

3    Government of Canada. After the Warm Welcome: Ensuring that Syrian Refugees Succeed. Ottawa: Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, November 2016. CBC. Syrian refugees in GTA hotels struggle to find housing. Toronto: CBC, March 10, 2016. Accessed: April 20, 2017

4    Government of Canada, After the Warm Welcome.

5    Government of Canada. Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story. Ottawa: Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, December 2016.

6    Friscolanti, Michael. Getting Syrians here was easy. Now comes the hard part. Macleans: August 9, 2016. Accessed: April 20, 2017; Government of Canada, After the Warm Welcome.

7    Government of Canada, Finding Refuge.

8    Government of Canada, Finding Refuge.

9    WelcomeHomeTo. Lessons from Month 13: Next Steps in the Resettlement Sector. Toronto: WelcomeHomeTo, December 2016.

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