Edmonton's Syrian refugees need ongoing support, report says

The nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Edmonton in recent years continue to face barriers and challenges and need ongoing support, says a report presented to councillors Wednesday.

The report, Lessons from the Influx: How Edmonton Welcomed Refugees from Syria … and What We are Learning as They Strive to Put Down Roots, looks at the many challenges associated with helping refugees settle in Alberta's capital.

Agencies and individuals scrambled to welcome the newcomers and serve them well, said the report, which was presented to council's community and public services committee.

"Because the needs presented by incoming Syrians outstripped the capacity of any one organization, new and strengthened collaborations took shape, including some that hold promise of continuing into the future.

"Many heartwarming stories resulted as families were welcomed and accompanied on in the difficult journey of beginning to resettle." But the efforts weren't perfect, Lessons from the Influx says. "Everyone involved is keenly aware that more could have been done — and could still be done — to embrace newly arrived Syrians and ensure they become fully engaged in community life." 

Hasan Al Ebrahim fled Syria, arriving in Canada in 2017 with his four children.

One of the primary concerns for him and fellow newcomers is the lack of affordable space for their growing families, Al Ebrahim said.

"The families have more numbers, for example six or seven members. They live in a small space [and] that makes their lives very hard."

Need to step up

City councillor Michael Walters acknowledges housing for newcomers and refugees remains an issue.

"City of Edmonton has said for the last couple of years, we'll provide land for housing. We need the other orders of government — I'm like a broken record on this — to step up and fulfil their mandates."

Newcomers continue to face significant barriers to social inclusion beyond affordable housing, such as poverty, delays in learning English, difficulty in transferring professional credentials, untreated trauma, other health needs and discrimination, the report said.

"Due to its sheer size, this influx provides an opportunity to explore systemic changes that could make life better for our new neighbours from Syria — and for other waves of newcomers sure to come."City councillor Michael Walters acknowledges housing for newcomers and refugees remains an issue.

Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

Russ Dahms, executive director of Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations which prepared the report, said there are a few key areas his organization and city council need to focus on.

"Collaboration is one of the things that was highlighted in the report," Dahms said. "The second one is being client centred, and then really when it comes to some of the challenges it's really about poverty, income, and places to live."

City response

City administration will now explore ways to improve services in these areas:

  • Housing: cultural awareness for landlords
  • Mental health: culturally appropriate therapy
  • Interagency coordination: review and align coordinating bodies
  • Countering racism: develop and use municipal, provincial and federal anti-racism strategies
  • Community inclusion: broaden the definition of settlement success to include integration into community life.

The City of Edmonton said it continues to work with refugee-serving agencies and other orders of government to ensure Edmonton is "a welcoming community for all newcomers."

The city said the Edmonton Local Immigration Partnership, which is funded by the federal government, can help advance several of the recommendations outlined in the Lessons from the Influx report. Funding for 2020-25 has been approved in principle.

Since 2016, 2,813 refugees have resettled in Edmonton as part of Canada's response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the report said.

Most of the 2,800 refugees arrived in 2016 and 2017, but the numbers may not reflect all Syrian refugees in the city. That's because some were privately sponsored, moved to Edmonton from other Canadian cities, or became citizens since arriving in the country.