They owned and worked in a Syrian pharmacy — now they’re settlement counsellors in Edmonton as she upgrades to become licensed here and he tackles learning English.
Matilda Alber and her husband Pascal Safar re-located with their daughter to Edmonton from Aleppo, Syria, in 2015 after conflict forced them from their homes. Three years later, they work with Catholic Social Services to help other refugees become settled in Alberta’s capital.
“After the crisis we had to leave everything and start all over again, and I thought it would be much harder but I think we did good. It’s three years now and both my husband and I are settlement counsellors and I’m, like, that close to being a pharmacist in Canada,” said Alber.
Fluent in English and French before she arrived, Alber was able to find work translating and started the process to become a pharmacist shortly after arriving in the country. She says Pascal has found the resettlement harder because his English isn’t as strong.
“I had to study all over again in order to get my licence here, so I was like working mom and student and like everything all together. My husband on the other hand, his English wasn’t that good so he struggled finding a job,” said Alber.
After working with other refugees, Alber says it’s clear that learning English and finding employment are the greatest barriers Syrian refugees face as they come to Canada.
“Some of them don’t even know how to hold a pen. But at the same time, they’re so good at jobs like welding and carpentry, those jobs or occupations are really good and they want to work but because of the language they’re not able to,” said Alber.
A recent study by a researcher at the University of Alberta found such language and employments barriers are present with both publicly and privately sponsored refugees.
Refugees arrive in Canada through government sponsorship, private sponsorship or a mix of both. All sponsorships are for one year. Those sponsored by the government are resettled through criteria that prioritizes vulnerable groups such as women, children and the LGBTQ community. Private sponsors can provide money to resettle anyone of their choosing.
“What we discovered was privately sponsored refugees were facing similar issues than those of government sponsored,” said Sandeep Agrawal, the author of the study.
Agrawal said private sponsorship provided the greatest support system for refugees, but issues for those sponsored were still present.
“In the case in which they are sponsored by church groups, they have been well taken care of in the first year and in many instances their sponsorship were extended by these church groups for longer than one year, but in terms of gaining employment and learning English, it is a much more pervasive problem,” said Agrawal.
Alber, who was privately sponsored, agrees, adding that refugees brought through private sponsorship seem to have greater connections to the community.
“With a private sponsor, you have people to visit you at home on a regular basis, to call you, but (public sponsors) they don’t have anyone,” said Alber.
Despite the remaining gaps, Alber says as more Syrians arrive it is becoming easier for refugees to find a community to connect with.
Agrawal said moving forward, he believes blended programs are the best option when it comes to integrating refugees into Canadian society. Blended sponsorship sees the responsibility of re-settlement split between public and private dollars.
Agrawal says the mix between government selection criteria and private dollars allows for better support when re-settling refugees.
“It’s the criteria set by the Government of Canada which aligns in many ways with Canadian values to help out those who are most in need,” said Agrawal. “They were much more satisfied with their settlement process, they were very thankful to the Government of Canada as well as to Canadians for what they did for them.”
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