“We were concerned about the department’s inability to track whether the Syrian refugees had access to basic provincial services, such as health care and education – especially considering that part of the department’s objective was to help Syrian refugees benefit from Canada’s social, medical, and economic systems,” the auditor general’s report said.
For more than two years, WelcomeHomeTO’s team has been diving into the settlement experience of Syrian refugees. Along with countless other Canadians, we have volunteered in the temporary shelter hotels, privately sponsored families, worked with agencies and welcomed these newcomers into our lives. We have connected with, convened and consulted for various agencies in and around the settlement sector, from Ministries to socially innovative start-ups and everything in between.
As it is with many Canadians who have engaged in the settlement process either professionally, as volunteers, sponsors or as neighbors, this journey has been profoundly rewarding for us.
As much as we have been part of the integration experience of these new Canadians, we have benefited from the culture and experiences they have brought here with them.
One such example has been the new friends and collaborators we have met through the process, ranging from incredible community activists to social entrepreneurs like Anesh Daya at On the Spot Language and organizations like Jusoor.
This journey has not been without its frustrations, however, and some of these are hinted at in the Macleans’ summary of the Auditor General’s Settlement Services for Syrian Refugees report quoted above.
Through our panel conversations, outreach and informational interviews, we have documented and experienced first-hand some of the challenges faced by refugees, but also the staff mandated to serve them and the volunteers, private sponsors and community groups seeking to support the best settlement experiences possible. Here are a few of the findings from our
- Settlement service delivery is currently driven by quantitative metrics as opposed to qualitative delivery
- Despite the wide array of support available, refugees report significant barriers in accessing information and services designed to assist them.
- Employment is at the forefront of concerns for refugees as financial support dries up during Month 13. There is a vital need to create programs that educate and mentor professionals on alternative routes to employment that effectively utilize their transferable skills.
In our upcoming report Breaking the Language Barrier, we dig further into these challenges as they specifically relate to language.
Among the issues we identify in this report, there are concerns about the timing and context that initial language assessments take place.
Refugees arriving in Canada are often coping with psychological and emotional trauma. They may have witnessed or experienced horrific violence, and could have family members still at risk of harm – meaning they may not be in the best state of mind to focus on a language assessment test, especially when it’s administered within the first week of arrival. This means refugee newcomers may be assessed at fluency levels lower than those they actually have.
An example of this is Sara (name changed for privacy), a Syrian refugee we heard from through our series of in-depth newcomer interviews.
Sara was assessed at a Level 6. She didn’t agree with this assessment, feeling that her language skills were in fact higher. It took her a while to get a second assessment, but when she did, she was appraised at a higher level. She was able to complete a TOEFL English assessment and enter college directly. Sara’s story is probably unique because many newcomers don’t have the knowledge or confidence to request a second assessment, even when they know their own ability doesn’t match that of the assessment results.
Not all English Second Language (ESL) programs are created equal; while there are some excellent programs out there, others do not provide the specific fluency skills newcomers need to navigate their new communities, speak with health care professionals or even order a coffee.
In this On the Spot Language video explaining their Newcomer Program, a participant who had been in Canada for 13 months and received ESL training explained how none of that training had given him the ability to function independently in his day-to-day life.
It is encouraging that the Auditor General report raised concerns about assessments and program participation, but there is another level to this conversation about whether the assessments are appropriate and the programs offered are tailored to meet the needs newcomers to ensure the best settlement experiences.
Key to creating these experiences will be to engage newcomers as direct co-creators of this experience.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a co-founder of Welcome Home TO