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Syrian Refugees In Canada Turn To Community Groups For Basic Needs

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MONTREAL — Eight months since arriving in Montreal as Syrian refugees, Dania Saad and her husband, Samir Altabra, continue to receive monthly cheques of $1,000 from their private sponsors.

The cash belongs to them because they paid a Christian church $12,000 to come to Canada and are getting the money back in 12 monthly instalments.

Saad, 32, and Altabra, 47, are lucky in that they had the money and their sponsors had the foresight to ask for it upfront to ensure there were funds to help the family get through their first year in Quebec.

Many refugees, however, were sponsored by private citizens who meant well but didn't have the means to care for them, according to several community groups interviewed by The Canadian Press.

syrian refugees montreal
From left, Samir Altabra, Fadi (4), Reem (6) and Dania Saad, a Syrian family who came to Canada eight months ago, pose for a photograph at a community centre in Laval, Que., on Oct. 29, 2016. (Photo: Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Moreover, these groups and the Quebec government are now looking to what's known as the "13th month'' — when privately sponsored refugees become responsible for their own financial well-being after a year in the province.

"Some families had nothing to eat, no furniture, often not even appliances,'' said Marie Bourret, co-ordinator with CLICS Laval, a volunteer centre that has been helping refugees integrate into the province.

"We've had people come to us who had been here five months and didn't even have a refrigerator.''

Privately sponsored refugees were not meant to be in this situation.

"We've had people come to us who had been here five months and didn't even have a refrigerator.''

As opposed to refugees taken in by the province who are immediately eligible for welfare, privately sponsored individuals and families are supposed to be under the care of their benefactors for 12 months.

Only after one year can refugees unable to find work apply for welfare.

"We had schools calling us because kids were coming in with nothing to eat, while others called and said the rent couldn't be paid,'' Bourret said.

Some don't know where their sponsors are

Veronica Islas, who works with a community group in Montreal that helps refugees, said families came to her centre for help and didn't know where their sponsors were.

The Altabras are grateful for the help they received, but they know that after the 12th month they will be alone.

Altabra works during the weekend at a burger restaurant and spends the week taking French lessons, as does his wife.

"We believe in God,'' Saad said through a translator at a recent community event north of Montreal. "God helped us this far, helped us to get here. We are confident we will find jobs.''

Issam Alsamaan, 55, spent his first six months in Quebec with his brother-in-law, rent free.

"We believe in God... God helped us this far."

He now rents an apartment with his wife and their three children aged between 8 and 14. Alsamaan's family came to Canada with US$3,000 and are receiving child allocations from the government to help pay the bills.

Refugees became permanent residents as soon as they landed and all families — whether state or privately sponsored — were immediately eligible for children-aid programs.

"I am confident I will find work as a mason,'' he said through a translator. "My kids are integrating, they are learning French and I met people who said they will help me find work as soon as I learn how to speak the language.''

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged during the 2015 election campaign to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, Quebec welcomed just more than 2,000 by the end of that year.

Only 15 were state-sponsored and the rest were under the care of individual citizens or community and religious groups.

Quebec has increased its state-sponsored refugee quota and this year, as of Oct. 10, had welcomed 1,123 people. Another 3,062 Syrians were privately sponsored during the same period.

As the one-year anniversary approaches for many privately sponsored refugees, the Quebec government said it didn't know how many had found work or how many welfare applications it was expecting.

"We have no information on our end that tells us welfare applications will increase considerably,'' said Antoine Lavoie, a spokesman for Quebec's Employment Department.

syrian refugees montreal
Syrian refugee Issam Alsamaan poses for a photograph at a community centre in Laval, Que., on Oct. 29, 2016. (Photo: Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The employment figures the government does keep aren't promising, however.

Quebec created a program to help refugees find work and Lavoie said 333 companies took part.

As of mid-October the participating companies had offered 1,350 positions and only 242 spots were filled, with not all those hired being Syrians, Lavoie said.

Lavoie added other Syrian refugees could have found work outside government programs but that the province doesn't track those figures.

Paul Clarke, who works for Action Refugies Montreal, sits on a government committee that is looking into the concept of the "13th month'' and how Quebec will help accompanying refugees after their first year in the province.

He said he and the government are well aware some sponsors didn't keep their end of the bargain — but he isn't too critical.

"Various groups, from a humanitarian perspective, wanted to help as many people as possible,'' he said.

"However, sponsoring people who are coming here as refugees is a large responsibility and it could be that some individuals and groups took on too many.''

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