Opinion

To be employable here, Syrian youth need help

By Robin Baranyai, Special to Postmedia Network

New Syrian Refugee Abdullatif Abdul Karam describes dealing with Calgary's cold snap with the help of interpretation by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society's Rima Jacob on Monday December 12, 2016. Abdullatif his wife Ebtisan Alawa and four children escaped from Aleppo in 2013 and have been bounced around several countries in the Middle East always with the hope of making it to Canada. They arrived in late November. The Calgary Catholic Immigration Society has helped them since they arrived. (GAVIN YOUNG/Postmedia Network)

New Syrian Refugee Abdullatif Abdul Karam describes dealing with Calgary's cold snap with the help of interpretation by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society's Rima Jacob on Monday December 12, 2016. Abdullatif his wife Ebtisan Alawa and four children escaped from Aleppo in 2013 and have been bounced around several countries in the Middle East always with the hope of making it to Canada. They arrived in late November. The Calgary Catholic Immigration Society has helped them since they arrived. (GAVIN YOUNG/Postmedia Network)

As witnesses to the devastation in Aleppo, many feel we should do more to help. At the same time, Canadians are taking stock of the important and ongoing work to integrate some 36,000 displaced Syrians.

The resettlement of Syrian refugees began in earnest about a year ago, with communities stepping up to help families adjust to their new home. Now, with federal funds set to expire, policy makers are training their eye on "Month 13."

Government-assisted refugees receive 12 months of federal support. Private sponsor groups, likewise, commit to covering a family's living expenses for a full year or until they are financially independent, whichever comes first; however, they can choose to extend this support if necessary. Many are finding a year is simply not enough.

The quest for employment comes with challenges, such as getting a driver's licence. But the biggest hurdle, by far, is language. Many skilled workers find they cannot get jobs in their field without English or French proficiency. Even to stock the shelves at a grocery store, employees must understand safety training.

Refugee youth face particular challenges. Their education may have been disrupted. Many face competing pressures to complete their schooling and help out financially, while navigating cultural differences.

As Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto, testified before the Senate standing committee on human rights: "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."

Employment and Social Development Canada is taking a promising approach to this problem. It has contracted Cense Research + Design to conduct pan-Canadian consultations to identify what's working, what are the obstacles to employment and how they might be overcome.

Project lead Cameron Norman is speaking with employers, immigration support agencies, private sponsor groups and, most importantly, refugee youth themselves. Their feedback is helping to shape program proposals designed to support employment through a range of considerationsm including education, transportation and mental health. Solutions may cut across multiple departments and all levels of government.

In interviews, Norman asks youth what they like about their jobs and how they got hired. He also asks: Do you have someone you can talk to? Have you had interactions with the police, and were they positive? Do you feel safe?

Rather than top-down programming, the ideas and feedback are coming from the communities living these challenges firsthand.

Consultants are learning, for example, youth may come to Canada with more work experience than expected for their age. One teenager Norman interviewed had worked full time from the age of 11, helping his family stay afloat in Lebanon. By 16, he had experience in landscaping, mechanics, stonemasonry, pickling, and several years as a Halal butcher.

Program designs may propose models for connecting in-demand skills with community needs. Others may focus on helping youth explore the kinds of jobs available in Canada.

The final shape of programs is yet to be unveiled, but recommendations will be informed by several key findings. Newcomers need a range of options to learn English. Some learn well in school; others prefer to learn on the job. Employers also need better information about how much English is actually needed on the job.

Sustainable employment is vital for young refugees to integrate successfully, and a tremendous untapped resource benefitting our communities and Canada's economy.

write.robin@baranyai.ca