Secure shelter is hard to find for BC refugees. First in a new series.
The sunny sidewalks of south Fraser Street in Vancouver are full of the casual energy brought out by blue skies and a long weekend. It’s Good Friday. People crowd the produce markets, pack the bus stops and fill patios to toast four days off work.
To one young man browsing a produce stand for Red Delicious apples, bananas and mango juice, the statutory holiday means little.
Delawar, 27, (he asked that his last name be withheld) is about ready to give up on his hopes of making a new home for himself in Vancouver.
His groceries bagged, he takes a side street to the basement apartment he shares with his roommate Qudratullah, 23, (who likewise wished his last name be held). Unlike others their age in the neighbourhood, these guys don’t have big Friday night plans. Indeed, after a year spent fruitlessly looking for work, the days have a way of bleeding into each other.
Both are former translators for the Canadian military in Afghanistan, brought here by the federal government to start a new life safe from reprisals. But the better life has proven elusive in Vancouver. Work is non-existent, shelter unaffordable.
Delawar is not alone in his predicament. Poverty and the constant threat of being put out onto the street dominate the lives of refugees like him in Metro Vancouver, according to a 2011 Metropolis BC report. The study of precarious housing and hidden homelessness among new Canadians suggests that many refugees suffer from low incomes and lack strategies or resources to advocate for help. As a result, those trying to put down new roots in Vancouver are often forced into substandard, overcrowded and unaffordable housing, and are at the elevated risk of losing their shelter entirely.
Now close to running out of money, Delawar has decided to move on. On Monday he’ll move to Calgary, a place he’s never seen.
“I don’t know what will happen there,” Delawar says. “I’ll try first to find work as a mechanic. Some of my friends living in Calgary think there’s a lot of jobs [there], so that’s why I’m moving. Because we are new here in B.C., there are no jobs for us.”
Resettlement assistance, for a while
Vancouver is a city built by immigrants, and Canada has offered a safe haven to refugees ever since 1776.
The federal government brought Delawar and Qudratullah to Canada in 2012, designating them under the Convention Refugees Abroad Class as government-assisted refugees: people forced to flee their home countries to escape persecution, war or severe human rights abuses.
The class constitutes the majority of refugees entering Canada, some 14,500 people a year (see table below). Many have extensive skilled experience. In addition to working as a translator in Kandahar for the Canadian Forces, Delawar is a trained electrical mechanic who worked with the American Special Forces, and in his early twenties was a sergeant in the Afghan National Army.
Facing a bleak future in his own country, he willingly accepted the Canadian government’s offer of refuge, arriving in Vancouver with hope that his varied experience and knowledge of English would quickly land him a job and put a roof over his head.
The federal government provides refugees it sponsors with transition assistance. Under the federal Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP), refugees like Delawar and Qudratullah receive monthly cheques scaled to provincial social assistance rates. The benefit ends when they find work, or after a year.
Between April 2012 and April 2013, Delawar received $720 a month under RAP. He paid $400 of it for his share of a two-bedroom basement apartment — a portion of his income considered unaffordable by the standards of BC Housing and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Both agencies consider housing beyond affordable reach if it requires more than 30 per cent of one’s income to secure. Even though Delawar’s suite at $800 was near the bottom of Vancouver private market rental rates for two bedrooms, it nonetheless gobbled up over half — 55 per cent — of his monthly stipend.
Qudratullah, who came to Canada with his older friend, worries about how he’ll cover all the rent before he finds a new roommate. But he understands why Delawar has to go. As a place to live, he says, Vancouver “is too expensive. We don’t know why they brought us here.”
That decision was made by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which chooses where to place government-assisted refugees based on their work experience, language community, and the local availability of settlement services.
Qudratullah is fluent in multiple languages –Afghani, Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi, English — has taken business administration and computer classes, and most recently worked alongside Delawar translating for Canadian soldiers on foot patrol.
In Vancouver, he says, “I gave [out] more than 100 CVs. I didn’t receive one call from anyone.”
If Delawar has luck finding work in Calgary, Qudratullah will follow him. “If he says Calgary is good for work, then I will also move,” he says. “We can’t stay here. We have to work.”
Harder for families
In leaving Vancouver for better prospects in Calgary, Delawar is following the lead of countless earlier generations of enterprising new Canadians who kept moving until they struck opportunity. But what is feasible for a young single man is less so for a family.
Esther Mang, now 38, and her husband Lianawr, 43, fled separately in 2006 from their homes in Myanmar, a country of one of the longest standing military dictatorships in the world. Myanmar’s army had conscripted Lianawr. When he refused to carry out some of its barbaric orders, he was tortured before managing to flee, eventually reaching India. When soldiers sought Lianawr at the couple’s home, Esther also fled, escaping overland on foot to India.
By good fortune the pair met up again in New Delhi, where Lianawr found employment in a radio factory and Esther as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The work brought her into contact with Canadian officials before gaining acceptance for the family as government-assisted refugees in Canada.
The Mangs arrived in Canada in late 2011 with their infant son, David. Resettlement Assistance Program workers greeted them at Vancouver International Airport and took them to Welcome House — a transitional housing facility downtown operated by the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSBC).
The government-funded agency provides an array of services to help over 30,000 immigrant clients a year find a footing in their new country. But beyond offering temporary accommodation at Welcome House, only one ISSBC staff position among 365 employees is funded to provide housing search assistance specifically to government-assisted refugees.
The Mang family managed to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $850 a month, but it took more than two-thirds of the $1,218.75 they were receiving through RAP at that time. After moving three times, they now pay $800 a month for a small one-bedroom apartment off Kingsway in East Vancouver. All three sleep in the suite’s single tiny bedroom, a situation that won’t be feasible as David, now three, grows up.
Stress is ‘difficult to overstate’
Their crowded situation is a common experience for refugee families. The 2011 Metropolis BC study of such families in Metro Vancouver showed that most living on federal RAP assistance were sleeping an average of two people per bedroom.
Overcrowding, the study’s authors wrote, is just one consequence of incomes too low to afford larger dwellings. Other factors include restricted access to subsidized housing, lack of knowledge about the regional rental market, language barriers, and vulnerability to abuse from landlords. They added: “It is difficult to overstate the significance of the stress experienced by [refugee] focus group participants due to the challenges they face in the housing market.”
UBC geographer and Metropolis BC report co-author Daniel Hiebert has studied newcomers’ experience with housing for years. He describes “a mismatch between lived experience and the way settlement services are funded,” that results in many newcomers failing to achieve the integration into Canadian society that the federal government cites as its top priority.
Hiebert considers shelter a critical requirement for new settlers. But instead of helping refugees secure housing, he says that service organizations like ISSBC focus too much on “how Canadian society works. It’s oriented towards getting people prepared for language instruction and ultimately citizenship instruction, making sure people get the wherewithal to get a job.”
“Housing,” he says, “is a side issue.”
ISSBC staffers are well aware of the housing gaps that exist for newcomers. They’re peddling hard, says ISSBC settlement services director Chris Friesen, to stretch their limited resources to better serve the organization’s clientele.
“What we’re trying to do, and the populations we’re working with — for example, refugee claimants — are not deemed a priority by the federal government,” Friesen observes. “They’re not interested in providing the housing for that population. So we get caught, we fall between the [funding] cracks because of the population we’ve identified and prioritized.”
Nonetheless, the Immigrant Services Society is expanding one of its resources. A new Welcome House centre is being built in Grandview-Woodland. Some 200 beds will take the place of the 80 beds currently downtown to address the immediate housing needs of refugee and immigrant newcomers. Accommodation will be configured to serve both singles and families for stays as short as two weeks and as long as a year. The new regional shelter and service hub for refugees and other newcomers is expected to open in 2015. (We’ll explore the new Welcome House in more detail in the final installment of this series.)
Small victories, lingering regrets
In the meantime, there are small victories to be celebrated. Since their RAP support ended last December, the Mang family has become self-supporting. Lianawr makes $1,900 a month working construction — although 42 per cent of that goes to rent, still an “unaffordable” level of expenditure, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and BC Housing.
Esther has more professional qualifications than her husband — she was a teacher in Myanmar — but has had more trouble finding employment. A teacher’s salary would bring in at least $38,894 — but certification in B.C. would require her to upgrade her education, a luxury she can’t afford. Instead, she works as a Burmese translator at the Mount Pleasant Family Centre. She enjoys it, but the $16 an hour she earns for sporadic on-call shifts doesn’t amount to much.
Watching David, now three, show off his muscle-man poses and ninja moves on an abandoned couch outside their apartment, Esther thinks about her older son. He was seven when she was forced to leave him with her older sister in Myanmar because he was too little to keep pace with Esther as she escaped. He’s now almost 12.
Few of her neighbours know much about Esther’s life. Compared to Myanmar or India, she finds her new home terribly quiet, and Canadian society peculiar in its reserve.
“In Asian countries, we visit each other, we share our problems, we talk about our experiences,” she says. “Here, it’s quite different. No chit-chat, nothing.”
On another afternoon, Delawar and Qudratullah’s basement apartment darkens as the day wanes. Delawar opens his laptop to look at pictures taken a year earlier in Kandahar. There are shots of the two friends wearing Canadian military fatigues, flak jackets dusty with sand. Some show spectacular expanses of desert. Then come pictures of the two mugging for the camera with friends, green bottles of beer in hand.
Each photo is looked at for a long time, Delawar explaining each one in detail. The slideshow ends on a formal studio portrait of a woman in her mid-twenties with dark eyes, pretty long hair and fuchsia lipstick. He quickly minimizes the screen. There’s nothing else to say.
Relying on luck
The Resettlement Assistance Program counts on government-assisted newcomers to Canada to become employed, financially self-sufficient and stably housed within the course of a year — for many that means learning a new language while fresh from the traumas that forced them to flee their homes.
Those who reach Canada on their own, relying on this country’s historically open arms to recognize their claim to be refugees from an intolerable homeland, can expect even less.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada is emphatic that “the Government of Canada does not provide shelter for refugee claimants in Canada,” as a spokesperson wrote in an email in response to a question about newcomers struggling to afford housing in the private rental market. They should lean on the provincial, not the federal government for aid, the email added.
With Delawar departing for Calgary, Qudratullah checked out provincial social assistance — and was shocked at the $610 monthly rate for employable singles. Instead, he’s doubling up on his search for work.
He says he’s grateful for the help he has received so far, worried about his future prospects, but also optimistic. “In Islam, we call it luck,” he says. “If luck is not with you now, it’s going to be okay one day.”
Canada may be a safer home for Delawar, Qudratullah and the Mang family than the troubled countries they have left behind. But while this country may happily be free of violence, abuse or intimidation, the haven it provides still stops far short of secure, affordable or sufficient shelter for many.
We’ll look at some ideas for changing that in future reports in this series.