B.C. has longest waiting lists for English classes in Canada
Monday, December 5, 2016

Thousands of Syrian refugees in Metro Vancouver have not had any English classes, making it nearly impossible for them to find jobs as their year of federal support comes to an end in early 2017.

There are about 5,000 people on the waiting list for federally funded classes in B.C. While this is down from a high of 9,000 earlier this year, it is still the most of any province in Canada, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. 

“The majority of the wait list is located in Surrey, which happens to be where 52 per cent of Syrian (government-assisted refugees) reside,” Friesen said in an email. This is up from 44 per cent in June.

Those waiting for government-funded English classes are not only refugees. They are also skilled workers and family members sponsored by Canadian relatives or spouses. But the close to 2,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees who arrived in B.C. mostly in January and February will stop receiving their monthly stipend from Ottawa one year after their arrival. If by that time they have not found work, they will go on B.C. social assistance. Most government-assisted refugees spoke little to no English or French upon arrival, according to a federal report.

The immigrant services group SUCCESS has 1,169 people on its waiting list for English classes in Surrey, said CEO Queenie Choo. This is basically unchanged from the spring. DIVERSEcity, another immigrant outreach agency in Surrey, has 262 people on its waiting list, of which 11 per cent are Syrian, said chief operating officer Tahzeem Kassam, though that percentage rises to 31 per cent for the two most basic levels of English.

Elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, there are places where immigrants can access English classes within a month, but only if they don’t need child care in order to attend, said Diana Ospina, acting senior manager for the language program at Mosaic, an agency responsible for refugees in Burnaby, Vancouver and the North Shore.

“Basically for us, the big kind of bottleneck is child care. A lot of the clients that we’re seeing from Syria do require child care,” she said.

In Burnaby and Vancouver, the waiting times for English classes with child care spots are anywhere from eight to 10 months. On the North Shore, because the child care facilities are smaller, it can be over a year, Ospina said.

Smah Nyala, a Syrian refugee from Damascus who arrived in Canada in January, settled in Coquitlam and got into English classes soon after. Then, over the summer, a fire destroyed the apartment she was renting with her husband and two daughters, 7 and 6. The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. helped the family find another home in Vancouver, but she could not get back into English classes and has now been waiting three months.

“Because I live in Canada, it’s important I speak English with people … to go shopping, go to the doctor, everything,” she said in an interview, speaking in English. “I try and learn English by myself, watching the TV and the computer, but that’s not enough. I need more.”

The federal government cut funding to B.C. for English classes for newcomers earlier this year, just as thousands of Syrian refugees were arriving. This was because B.C. received fewer immigrants the previous year and funding is related to the number of immigrants a province receives the previous year. Ottawa provided the front-line agencies with additional funds for Syrian refugee resettlement, but because of the cuts, most agencies were left with the same amount of funding and many more people to help.

Ottawa last week offered an additional $18.5 million for refugee resettlement across the country, said Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society, but it’s unclear how that money will be divided between the provinces.

Choo said SUCCESS has applied for some of that funding in order to offer additional English classes.

“We are hoping the federal government will consider at least the appropriate portion for B.C., especially for Surrey,” she said.

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Source: The Vancouver Sun / Tara Carman

Photo: Masud Azar, a family and youth outreach worker, teaches a class to refugees at SUCCESS. The agency and other immigrants services group have long waiting lists for English-as-a-second-language courses and many Syrian refugees face losing their year of federal support without having had a chance to learn English. Gerry Kahrmann / Vancouver Sun