OTTAWA — The Liberal government needs to provide Syrian refugees with more resources so they can have a better chance of integrating successfully into Canada, a new Senate report says.
The Senate's standing committee on human rights heard from several witnesses, including refugees themselves, during hearings in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, this spring. It was so moved by the testimony it heard that it issued an interim report Monday to spur the government into action.
"It was like being hit with a sledgehammer of emotion," committee chair, Senate Liberal Jim Munson told The Huffington Post Canada. "We want the government to see and feel what we heard."
Sen. Jim Munson makes his way from a Liberal meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wed., January 29, 2014. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
"Canada has welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees with fine words and open arms," he said in a statement released with the committee's six recommendations. "These alone are not sufficient to address the very real and very urgent problems that lie ahead."
Conservative senator and deputy chair Salma Ataullahjan said she was so troubled by what she heard she had difficulty sleeping at night.
She was particularly touched by the braveness of a 30-year-old single mother of four who recounted being sexually harassed every day in Lebanon when she walked outside with her daughter. "In traditional societies women never talk about sexual harassment," said Ataullahjan, who is originally from Pakistan and identified with the woman. "She was very frank and didn't even mind being identified."
A number of the refugees who spoke to the committee asked to remain anonymous, fearing their families in Syria might face reprimands.
Urgent call for mental health resources
An in-camera session in Toronto was one of the "most gut-wrenching emotional hours" Munson said he'd ever experienced, where refugees talked about what they went through, what they witnessed, and how they are coping.
"You don't see that type of emotion. They really expressed themselves so much that we had to stop for a second so everybody could gather themselves."
Their testimony led the committee to recommend to the government that it work with the provinces and territories to develop a plan to address refugees' mental health needs.
Munson recounted hearing a boy who hid his toys under his bed fearing soldiers would come take them away. And of a woman who forgot her child had a dentist appointment and thought they had been kidnapped when she returned to school and couldn't find them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder should be one of the government's top priorities, Munson said.
Syrian refugee Wafaa Al Safadi holds a photo of her late son Yasser Al Salayma in her family's new home in Queensland, N.S. on Friday, June 24, 2016. (Photo: Darren Calabrese/CP)
The new refugees are isolated because of language, they are homesick and miss their sisters or fathers, and live in cramped apartments in the city, he said. "They kept saying: 'We don't want to be a burden on Canadian society," Munson said. "[But they] are living in two worlds, and that type of quiet suffering is something that we Canadians don't see, and I think that has to be addressed."
One woman, who testified anonymously, said her 11 and 10-year-old daughters had seen their father slaughtered in front of them and had later spent months in a detention centre where they were "subjected to the kind of torture that even adult men would not be able to stand."
Dr. Meb Rashid, the medical director of refugee-focused Crossroads Clinic, told the committee refugees needed to connect with people who could follow up with them continuously and build a relationship of trust that is crucial to their mental well-being.
But what really helps refugees, Rashid added, is getting a job or being reunited with their families."
"Those issues really intersect, fundamentally, with people's mental health," he said.
"They kept saying: 'We don't want to be a burden on Canadian society. [But they] are living in two worlds, and that type of quiet suffering is something that we Canadians don't see, and I think that has to be addressed."
The committee also recommended that more money be allocated for language-training programs so refugees could make use of programs immediately upon their arrival — and suggested childcare be provided so parents could attend class.
"Some refugees were from such small villages that they weren't even literate, they weren't even able to write or read Arabic also," Ataullahjan said, stressing the monumental learning curve some newcomers face.
The government, she said, must fund language classes because it is the easiest and first step for refugees to integrate in society.
The committee also stressed the importance of adequate youth programming. Young people face unique challenges adapting, the senators were told.
"The youth group is the group that has the greatest difficulty, usually, in integrating because they are at a time in their life when their identity is developing and evolving," Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto, testified.
Sen. Salma Ataullahjan comforts a delegate during a policy meeting at the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Friday, May 27, 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Many of the committee's recommendations, however, dealt with the financial stresses and hardships that refugees often face.
The committee urged the acceleration of processing time for child tax benefits so refugees aren't waiting three months to receive benefits.
"Because it takes so long to receive benefits, some of them end up in food banks," Munson told HuffPost. This doesn't just affect refugees but all Canadians, he added, saying shorter processing times of two weeks or one month would be a lot better.
"The last place Syrian refugees want to end up is at a food bank and the first place you want them is walking into a grocery store like any other Canadians."
Loans a 'source of acute anxiety'
The committee suggested grants could replace one-year loans for transportation and other expenses or, alternatively, the government could introduce a debt-forgiveness mechanism or interest-free loans.
Loans are an "economic burden and a source of acute anxiety" for refugees, senators said.
One refugee in Montreal, who arrived in Canada before the Liberals funded airfare costs for the 25,000-plus newcomers that arrived this winter, waved a bill from the government for about $900 during a hearing. That was the cost of his plane ticket that needed to be repaid in two days, Munson recounted. "He doesn't have the money and… he thought this must be done right now, he didn't seem to have any avenues to go to have it explained to him that perhaps he could be deferred for a little while longer," the senator said.
The federal government should revisit airfare costs and other expenses and see if, on compassionate grounds, they could be eliminated, Munson added.
But conscious of the fact more refugee benefits might mean fewer refugees arriving in Canada, Munson told HuffPost, the committee was only proposing options to the government, not dictating what it should do.
'Echoing the voices of the voiceless'
"We are echoing the voices of the voiceless, so to speak," he said.
"As a committee, we are looking at this as a long-term investment," he said. Whatever the government can do to ease the transition and nurture new Canadians is a worthwhile investment in the future of the country, he added.
The committee also recommended eliminating different treatments for separate categories of refugees, from processing times for applications to services provided and loan repayment obligations. Syrian refugees who arrived at different times or through different programs, and non-Syrian refugees should be treated equally, the committee said.
One thing the committee found was that privately-sponsored Syrian refugees were faring a bit better and had a better support system than government-sponsored refugees, Ataullahjan said. "This is one of the things we will be exploring in the full report, are we creating a two-tiered refugee system?"
On the flip side, she added, the committee also heard from privately-sponsored refugees that they are also being "mothered a little bit too much."
"There are no easy answers," she said.
Immigration Minister John McCallum holds a painting Hamza Ali, 13, presented him with as his father Mohammad Ali looks on at an event in Ottawa, Monday June 20, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
But both Ataullahjan and Munson stressed the importance of releasing their committee's observations quickly.
Some issues, such as the lack of affordable housing — Ataullahjan described how one family testified they were receiving $1,400 monthly from the government but paying $1,200 in rent — would be part of the committee's full report later this fall.
"It's crazy," she said. "We are very happy we brought these people and the government has done a good job bringing them over but there are so many issues and so many problems and a lot of them don't have the language skills."
If the committee had issued all of its recommendations, she said, "people would just drown looking at them."
Munson said he hoped the human rights committee could be more relevant by issuing reports in "real time" and not just do "long-term learned sober-of-second thought" reports.
McCallum looking forward to full report
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum's office, however, said he looked forward to receiving the Senate committee's full report in the fall and reviewing their recommendations.
"He is aware of the work that they are doing and the valuable input they'll be providing to assist with the resettlement and integration of the Syrian refugees. He is also well aware of the concerns regarding travel loans and extra funding, and had already tasked his department on finding viable options, which is currently underway," said McCallum's spokeswoman Camielle Edwards.
The Liberal government said it is already working to expedite the delivery of child tax benefits and noted that, in the March budget, it had set aside $245 million over five years to process refugee applications, transport them to Canada, and help resettle an additional 10,000 Syrians.
Since Nov. 4, 2015, 28,449 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, including 15,768 government-assisted refugees, 10,073 privately-sponsored refugees, and 2,608 blended visa-office referred refugees, the Senate committee said. More than 300 communities across Canada have welcomed the new arrivals.
The Liberal government had pledged during the election to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31, 2015. In November, however, it committed $678 million over six years to welcome 25,000 Syrians by the end of February and announced plans to resettle an additional 10,000 by the end of 2016.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2015.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives newly arrived Syrian refugee Sylvie Garabedian a winter jacket as her mother Anjilik Jaghlassian looks on.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees Lucie Garabedian, her father Vanig Garabedian, mother Anjilik Jaghlassian, and sister Anna-Maria Garabedian.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16--old Madeleine Jamkossian, and her father Kevork Jamkossian.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau examines welcome bags before greeting refugees from Syria at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a selfies with workers before he greets refugees from Syria.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne offers a teddy bear to 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian and her father Kevork Jamkossian.
UP NEXT: Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis
In 2011, internal conflict erupted in Syria that would later escalate into a full-blown civil war that rages on to this day, now complicated by the arrival of Islamic militants from neighbouring Iraq. Since the start, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called on countries to help resettle some of the most vulnerable Syrians who can never return home, a call that grew louder as the crisis has escalated. Here's a look at how Canada responded over time. (Information by The Canadian Press) Syrians hold a large poster depicting Syria's President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, Syria in 2011.
- Canada closes its embassy in Damascus, a move that would come to have major repercussions for refugee resettlement out of the Middle East as that visa post was handling the majority of the files for refugees from other countries who had sought temporary safety in Syria. Those files were then transferred to nearby countries, leaving visa officers scrambling to handle them and the start of a surge in Syrian refugee applications. - By the end of 2012, the UNHCR had registered close to half a million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. - Syrian Canadians call on Canada to do more to support the refugees, including speeding up family reunification programs and opening the doors to more refugees, but the government said without an official request from the UN for resettlement, it would not act. Syrian refugee girls wash their clothes at a camp in Idlib, Syria, in October of 2015.
The number of people registered as refugees from Syria or being assisted by the UN hits one million. A Syrian refugee boy at a camp in Turkey in October 2015.
The UN makes its first formal request to member countries to assist in refugee resettlement, asking for 30,000 spaces by the end of 2014. Syrian Kurdish refugees walk in the United Nations Refugee Agency refugee camp in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, in January 2015.
The Harper Conservatives promise to admit 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, with the majority sponsored by private groups. The 200 spots available to government-assisted refugees are not new refugee spaces — the Conservatives choose to allocate the 200 they set aside each year for the Syrian program. Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits a refugee camp in Jordan, one of the main host countries for Syrians. He announces $150 million in humanitarian aid; over the course of the conflict Canada has been one of the lead financial donors for relief efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. By this point, some $630 million has been committed. Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Harper visit Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan in January 2014.
The UN High Commissioner makes a new request: an additional 100,000 places for Syrian refugees by 2016. Canada says it is reviewing its options. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2015.
Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander admits that fewer than 200 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since the July 2013 promise, saying the UNHCR was slow passing on referrals. Chris Alexander speaks in the House of Commons.
By the end of the month, just over 1,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, meaning the government missed its deadline. A Syrian Kurdish refugee walks in a UNHCR refugee camp in Suruc in January 2015.
The Conservative government commits to allowing 10,000 more Syrian refugees in by 2018, most through the private sponsorship program. The focus is to be on religious minorities. Syrian refugee girls sit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 'Child Friendly Spaces' in the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian border with Syria in 2014.
The government finally meets its July 2013 promise to resettle 1,300 people, achieving it by increasing the number of government-assisted refugees. Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up during a photo opportunity.
The Conservatives order an audit of the government-assisted refugees coming out of Syria, citing security concerns. The review identifies no problems but delays the processing of those files for several weeks. Chris Alexander speaks at a press conference in Toronto in September, 2015.
The Conservatives pledge that if re-elected, they will allow a further 10,000 Syrians in over the next four years, continuing a focus on those being persecuted because of religion. Stephen Harper takes questions from the media on the campaign trail.
- Three-year-old Alan Kurdi dies during his family's escape from Syria. The photograph of his body on a Turkish beach and word his family had considered Canada as an eventual destination sees Canada's refugee response become a dominant issue in the election campaign. - The Conservatives increase available resources for the processing of refugee applications, promise to speed up resettlement of the 10,000 originally promised places and announce they'll match donations for Syrian relief. - The Liberals say they'll bring over 25,000 government-assisted refugees as soon as possible and encourage the private sector to take in more. They later promise to bring them in by the end of the year. A handout photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi shows a photo of her three-year-old nephew Alan Kurdi.
The Liberals win a majority government and say they remain committed to refugee resettlement. Justin Trudeau waves to the crowd as they arrive to Liberal election headquarters in Montreal.
The Liberal government announces its plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians. Immigration Minister John McCallum holds a news conference with Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harijit Singh Sajjan.