POLITICS

Canada's Syrian Refugee Efforts Sees Arrival Of More Children Than Expected

01/21/2016 09:15 EST | Updated 01/25/2016 04:59 EST

OTTAWA — More than half of Ottawa's newly arrived Syrians are under the age of 14, posing a particular challenge to refugee resettlement agencies — how do you keep the kids busy while trying to help their parents find a place to live?

One child recently proved the point — and in so doing, underlined the urgency of finding those homes as fast as possible.

Curious about the new world around their family at the hotel they currently call home, the youngster pulled the fire alarm, sending hundreds of people out into a cold winter night.

More children than expected are among many of the challenges facing the 36 cities currently accepting government-assisted Syrian refugees as efforts continue to settle 25,000 people in total by the end of February.

david johnston

Canada's Governor General David Johnston (left) Syrian refugee Osama and his baby daughter as they arrive at the Welcome Centre at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Dec. 18, 2015. (Chris Young/CP)

"We have a lot of families who are eight, seven (people), and our housing stock as a community is not strong on those sizes," said Carl Nicholson, executive director, Catholic Centre for Immigrants, which handles the settlement of government-assisted refugees in the national capital.

In Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Prince Albert, Sask., temporary accommodation is at or near capacity, prompting those cities to ask that the flow of cases be stopped or slowed until they can open up beds for more arrivals, immigration officials said Thursday.

The Immigration Department also included Halifax on that list, but groups there say they are managing the numbers coming in. Rather, what's been overwhelming has been the public support — so much so that the collection centre had to stop accepting donations.

Gerry Mills, director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, recalls tearing up when he saw of the warehouse chockablock with clothing, coats, toys and other items.

"People are looking for their place in the world."

But it takes more than basic necessities to make a newcomer feel at home in a strange place, Mills said.

"You've lost your family, you've lost your home, you've lost your job, you've lost your standing in the community," she said. "People are looking for their place in the world."

Children are kept busy with crafts or trips to the library and skating rinks, she said, and are also learning about what to expect in a Canadian school.

Young Syrians arriving in St. John's, N.L., are typically enrolled in school within three weeks. During that gap, settlement teams work with the families.

"I think in some respects, it might be a little easier for a young person because they quite quickly go into a school environment," said Megan Morris, executive director of the Association for New Canadians.

"They usually acquire language skills quickly and meet friends in the community."

The refugee program rolled out last fall had the Liberals aiming to bring 10,000 Syrians through private sponsorship and a further 15,000 under government assistance by the end of February.

There is also a program that blends the two streams, but a target was never set in that category.

Ongoing refugee efforts in Canada

Officials now say it's more likely that by the end of next month, 17,000 Syrians will have arrived under the government and mixed program and 8,000 with private sponsors. Currently, they are about halfway through the total; 12,425 Syrians have arrived in Canada since the Liberals took power in November.

Officials remain confident there will be 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of next month, although one expressed gratitude Thursday that this year, there's an extra day in February.

The government is also looking at expanding the network of cities that could take in government-assisted refugees, but say it will take a few months before new locales can be are chosen.

The original Liberal commitment had been to resettle 25,000 Syrians under the government-assisted program by the end of the year and work with private sponsors to bring in even more.

— With files from Melanie Patten in Halifax and Jennifer Graham in Regina

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