by Trisha Dempsey
Quick update on our private sponsorship effort: We are still eagerly waiting to receive the official Notice of Arrival for the family we have been matched with! We are happy to report that we all feel quite prepared for them - as prepared as we will ever be! The apartment is thoroughly furnished and ready, thanks to the many generous donations we received for the family. Based on the experience of other groups, we are anticipating that the family will arrive in the next 30 days or so. It is possible that we will receive only a 48 hour notice of their arrival.
**The rest of this blog post will be about the language needs of Syrian newcomers to Canada (not just our sponsored family) and how we can support them with learning English.**
Have you ever relocated to a country where you could not speak the host country's language and English-speakers were scarce? Despite having traveled briefly to non-English speaking countries, I have never tried to establish myself elsewhere and create a more permanent home outside of Canada. However, I can certainly imagine how difficult this might be and how frustrated I would likely become with the language barrier. Many of us take for granted, the ability to communicate easily with each other through a shared language.
The significant lack of English or French language proficiency has been identified as a key challenge for Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. A recent government analysis reported that 67 % of government-assisted Syrian newcomers to Canada speak neither English or French (as referenced in The Globe & Mail, Feb. 03/16).
One of the first priorities for the Syrian newcomers, will be to learn English as quickly as possible.
Learning the English language is essential because in most cases, people need to communicate effectively in English to find employment, further their education, navigate community resources, and make new social connections.
In Surray, B.C., former Syrian refugee Ahmad Hindawi, told journalist Catherine Rolfsen (CBC News Jan. 7/16) that he had to wait 11-12 months until he was able to get into an English language course. "Through a translator, he said it was a 'very difficult time' during which he was 'waiting, waiting, waiting, very nervously and anxiously.' During that time, he says, he wasn't able to find paying work."
Chris Friesen , the director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., tells Rolfsen: "They want to learn English... They want to give back, and they want to work and pay taxes and all those good things. But without the language acquisition piece, it's a detriment for them to reach their full potential."
In Burnaby, B.C., former Syrian refugee Yasin Alhomsi indicates that "improving his English is crucial for integrating into Canadian society. 'It's difficult for us to speak in English in the first days for us. To communicate with people, to make relationships with Canadian people,' he said. 'All companies, all owners ask ... first for English language.'" (Rolfsen, CBC News, Jan. 7/16)
When journalist Gerry Bellett asked Syrian refugee, Abdul Hafiz, what refugees need the most, "Hafiz said English instruction was — after housing and food — the most important" (The Vancouver Sun, Dec. 29/15). Hafiz is eager to learn English so he can find employment in his field.
Despite the eagerness of newcomers to find employment immediately after arrival, settlement agencies advise them to focus on investing the time into becoming proficient in English first.
Josie Ditzio, with COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto, says: "History has shown us that with past waves of immigrants and refugees, if you don't acquire your language in the earlier time of arrival, then it's less likely you are to acquire it down the road" (Ron Charles, CBC News, Jan. 29/16).
Without English proficiency, newcomers are at higher risk for increased stress, anxiety, and depression. There is a significant correlation between prolonged limited official language proficiency and a reduction in the self-reported health of newcomers in Canada [¹⁻³]. Research has also demonstrated that the lack of English proficiency is a barrier to accessing appropriate healthcare services [⁴⁻⁵].
Without English proficiency, newcomers may feel isolated, stuck, and discouraged that they cannot move forward with their lives here.
Syrian newcomers are resilient, courageous, and innovative people! However, starting over in a new country can be very challenging and these families may need a bit of assistance getting started with building their new lives here and learning English - particularly the government-assisted refugees.
In contrast to the privately-sponsored refugees, the government-assisted refugees typically have access to less social and practical supports that would support them with learning English, making new social connections, and navigating community resources. Research has demonstrated that privately-sponsored refugees fare better in the job market than government-assisted refugees. Whereas the privately-sponsored refugees (such as the family we are sponsoring) have a large team of people involved in preparing for their arrival and supporting them throughout their first year, the government-assisted refugees do not necessarily have access to the same degree of consistent practical and social support. Therefore, this blog post and call to action is dedicated primarily to addressing some of the resettlement challenges of government-assisted refugees.
During my volunteer shifts with Syrian government-assisted refugees, I was aware that many had a low level of English proficiency. I was really concerned about how this might impact them, especially if they could not access English language supports immediately.
I did some research and found out that other people in Canada were concerned about this as well...
"For Michael Ballard, a picture dictionary can be worth a thousand words of welcome... With drawings depicting everyday scenes, the books can help newcomers navigate supermarket aisles, classrooms, and casual greetings. When the Trenton military base temporarily hosted hundreds of incoming Kosovar refugees in 1999, Ballard, who lived nearby, volunteered with the resettlement effort... he set about arming the newcomers with picture dictionaries to quickly bolster their English skills."
Encouraged by the success of this previous effort, Ballard is hoping the picture dictionaries will have the same impact on Syrian newcomers:
"Ballard hopes families will treasure the books, keeping them as resources to use as homework helpers at the kitchen table or to arm themselves for visits with doctors, lawyers, and potential new bosses. He has heard from Kosovar refugees that they treasured their copy as something to hold on to, which can be increasingly meaningful for people who have left everything behind, he added. 'To me it’s partly about giving them a sense of dignity and a resource,' he said" (Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Toronto Star, Jan. 04/16).
Inspired by these Canadians who are responding to this urgent need, several weeks ago I launched a crowd-funding and awareness-raising campaign to support Syrian newcomers with learning English in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can watch the video below or visit the campaign website to find out more and to donate.
As you can see in the video, I highlight multiple ways that you can support Syrian newcomers with learning English. You can volunteer to tutor newcomers in English, you can donate English language learning materials, you can bridge the language gap by learning some Arabic, and you can donate to cover the cost of buying each family a copy of theOxford English-Arabic Picture Dictionary. I consulted with many people involved in English language instruction and they all agreed with Michael Ballard, that this would be an excellent resource.
I have set an initial goal of $3,500, which will allow me to purchase approximately 100 dictionaries for 100 hundred families. I have raised enough money to cover the cost of buying dictionaries for 22 of the 85 government-assisted Syrian families that have arrived in Nova Scotia thus far, since December 29th, 2015. I placed my first order for 12 dictionaries last week, and I will be placing another order next week. It would be wonderful to 'catch-up' with the number of the families arriving and be able to supply all 85 families with language resources (and be prepared to provide more)! Any extra funds will allow me to supplement the packages with additional resources. You can donate through thecampaign website.
I will continue to order batches of the dictionaries as the money is raised - every dollar will go toward English language learning materials for these families, regardless of whether the original fundraising goal is met!
While waiting for the first batch of dictionaries to arrive, I am working with staff and volunteers at ISANS to determine the most effective way to distribute the packages to the newly arrived families. I am also working on putting together a document with a list of online resources and phone apps for English self-study to provide to the families, along with a letter of encouragement and welcome. These will all be translated into Arabic before they are delivered to the families. Ideally, I would also be able to collect donations of various English language learning materials so that I am not only delivering a dictionary and self-study suggestions, but a package with a number of resources that would include language learning materials for children. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any language resources to donate!
P.S. If you want to bridge the language gap, you might also consider learning Arabic! If you have a HRM library card, you can study Arabic using a free online language learning program called Rocket Languages.
1) Ng, E., Pottie, K., & Spitzer, D. (2011). Official language proficiency and self-reported health among immigrants to Canada. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2011004/article/11559-eng.htm
2) Pottie, K., Ng, E., Spitzer, D., Mohammed, A., & Glazier, R. (2008). Language proficiency, gender and self-reported health: An analysis of the first two waves of the longitudinal survey of immigrants to Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 505-510.
3) Guruge, S., Berman, R., Tyyska, V., Kilbride, K., Woungang, I., Edwards, S., & Clune, L. (2009). Implications of English proficiency on immigrant women's access to and utilization of health services. Retrieved from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/17685/1/guruge_berman_etal.pdf_
4) Bowen, S. (2001). Language barriers in access to healthcare. Health Canada. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hcs-sss/pubs/acces/2001-lang-acces/index-eng.php
5) McKeary, M., & Newbold, B. (2010). Barriers to care: The challenges for Canadian refugees and their health care providers. Journal of Refugee Studies, 1-23.