Q&A: U of A researcher on challenges faced by Syrian refugees

A study from the University of Alberta found that private sponsorship programs for Syrian refugees are not necessarily superior to government and blended sponsorships.

The purpose of the study was to analyze and compare various modes of sponsorship programs. The Gateway spoke with Sandeep Agrawal, the professor of urban and regional planning who conducted the study, about the resettlement experiences of Syrian refugees.

The Gateway: What is your new study about?

Agrawal: This study, which was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, was done between 2016 and 2017 and essentially recaptured the experience of Syrian refugees in the first year of their resettlement in Canada. I focused mainly on refugees who came to Edmonton. So what we are trying to do in the study is to look at settlement experience across all three sponsorship streams: GARs (government assisted refugees), private sponsors, which could include families and churches, and BVORs (blended visa office-referred refugees.)

What was the main finding regarding private sponsorships?

I think the key message of this study is that unlike the previous literature, and unlike what the Government of Canada says with regards to private sponsorship refugees, we found that these refugees face similar challenges as that of GARs or any other stream.

We categorized their experiences into three classifications. One of them is if they were sponsored through church groups, which happen to be more resourceful… the refugees seem to have flourished better in the sense that these church groups went well beyond what the government had required them to do. At times, they would extend their sponsorships beyond 12 months, sometimes they would buy houses or cars for them and arranged tutors for them.

The second class of experiences was the sponsors who did whatever the government required. Usually, it’s for four members of a family. It’s about 28,000 dollars, which includes monthly allowance and housing. So they did whatever the government required.

The third one, which is the key factor and may be unique to Alberta during that time, some of these refugees were abandoned and some of them were not taken care of when the refugees arrived here in Canada.

Why do you think some private sponsors had to abandon the Syrian refugees?

We hypothesized two scenarios. One was that there was some kind of tacit understanding between the refugees and the sponsors. The sponsors perhaps said “I’m going to bring you here, but you are on your own. I can’t take care of you.” The refugees may have chose to come here because they wanted a better life, but expected that they would be supported once they got to Canada. So, a mismatch of expectations is a possibility. Secondly, the economic downturn at that time was at rock bottom and some of the sponsors lost their jobs and just let the refugees go.

What are some specific solutions to help refugees resettle more effectively?

There were a few challenges, which were common among all of the three streams, and those were learning English and finding employment… They thought that their language classes were very colloquial in nature, that it was not preparing them for any employment. So, the common theme was for the government to put together some kind of apprenticeship or employment program along with learning the English language so that they can make use of the language for employment purposes and perhaps get some employment or develop some networks. The other thing is that there was no incentive for some of them to look for employment because they were fully taken care of. If they had gone on to find employment, they would have had to let go of the government support they were getting. Many of them pushed back and said that this amount of government support was creating dependencies, which was not good for themselves or Canadian society. For private sponsorships, we wanted the government to give it a bit more attention. They can’t privatize immigration refugee process in this era of neoliberalism and think, “Hey, they will be taken care of!”

What are the next steps in this study?

I would compare [the resettlement experience in] Edmonton and Lethbridge and see whether size matters and I can sort of give you a sneak preview to this. What we found was that size did matter and in many ways Lethbridge could provide better resettlement experience than Edmonton could. It’s just that because in smaller communities like Lethbridge, the people would come together and do things in a much faster way.

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