Jobs barrier: City wants more federal help for language training needs of Syrian refugees

Most Syrian refugee newcomers to Hamilton still need at least 900 more hours of English training to be fluent enough to hold a job.

'No community that already carries a significant challenge with poverty, with housing, should be burdened to any greater degree through these programs.' - Coun. Terry Whitehead

And the city says without more federal money to help catch up with the backlog, the new arrivals have little hope of finding jobs and financial independence.

A new city report Monday shows that 93 per cent of the new Canadians who fled here from the bloody Syrian civil war a year ago are, on average, at a level four when it comes to English as a Second Language (ESL). That's a Grade 3 reading and writing level.

The ideal level to hold a job is a seven, says Nicole Longstaff, the city's senior program manager of newcomer settlement. And each level takes about 300 hours of training. About a third arrived here a year ago at level one, and 30 per cent of the adults are illiterate in Arabic too.

That makes it hard for the newcomers to find jobs and independence, the report says. But there isn't enough federal money to provide the adequate English training — or child care for the people who want to take them.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, through his advisory committee for Syrian newcomers, is asking the federal government for more money for language training. As of October 2016, the waiting list was 240 people. Some need hundreds more hours of training. 

"Overall, we are seeing a consistent waiting list," Longstaff said.

The waiting lists are especially hitting newcomer women hard, she said. Syrian refugee families in Hamilton have an average of five people, and only a handful of ESL class locations have child care.

That means more women "are at home and at risk of isolation," she said.

Many of Hamilton's 1,330 Syrian newcomers learn English through local ESL classes and Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC). And while there are efforts to find the newcomers jobs, for most, the language has to come first.

Funding changes on 'Month 13'

"The majority of these refugees arrive with little or no English or French skills," said Nancy Caron, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in December. "It will take time for them to develop the language skills which will enable them to find jobs."

The city is also asking for more money for dental coverage, and $90,205 from the feds to handle the influx of newcomers on Ontario Works (OW).

For their first year here, Syrian refugee families who are government-assisted get money from either the federal government. Private groups support privately sponsored refugees.

But all that ends on "Month 13," when refugees not supporting themselves transition from the federal program to OW or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

190 families moving to social assistance

And that's most of them. Figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada show about 10 per cent of government assisted refugees earned some employment income in their first year here. For privately sponsored refugees, it's about 50 per cent.

Now 190 families are moving to OW. A family of five receives $1,413 per month, plus the Canada Child Benefit of up to $6,400 per year for each child under the age of six, and $5,400 for each child between six and 17.

The city couldn't provide the average cost of the federal benefit for families in Hamilton. But they'll receive less on OW, said Steve Jacques, the city's new director of OW.

Of the Syrian newcomers who arrived in Hamilton the last year, 84 per cent are government assisted, 11 per cent are privately sponsored and five per cent are blended visa office referred.

City staff presented the report to city council's emergency and community services committee on Monday.

'It shouldn't come at the expense of people sitting on the waiting list for years'

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor, wants a report back on efforts being made to integrate the refugee families into Hamilton.

Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8, meanwhile, wanted to make sure the feds were adequately funding the necessary programs. When the feds commit to allowing 25,000 Syrian refugees, as the Liberals did in late 2015, then Ottawa needs to provide enough money to support them.

When the task falls to the city, he said, it risks "bumping" long-time residents from local waiting lists for services.

"It shouldn't come at the expense of people sitting on the waiting list for years who have paid taxes all their lives," he said.

"No community that already carries a significant challenge with poverty, with housing, should be burdened to any greater degree through these programs."

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