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Lessons from the Influx: How Edmonton Welcomed Refugees From Syria…and What We Are Learning as They Strive to Put Down Roots

Posted on:
June 2, 2019

Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organization
Research conducted by Cheryl Mahaffy, Words that Sing Design by Fox Design
June 2019 | Juin 2019

This narrative study, sponsored by the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, captures key milestones, representative stories and observations about a unique time in our history as a multicultural community, both to salute those involved and to glean insights that may inform our collective future. In addition to hearing from agencies with major responsibility, such as Catholic Social Services (CSS) and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN), snapshots scattered throughout highlight just a few of the many others engaged in the all-consuming work of welcoming new neighbours.

Summary | Résumé

“In a typical year, refugees arrive in Edmonton by the hundreds. During the height of the influx of refugees fleeing war in Syria, more than two thousand came—hundreds in just a few months. Because the influx outstripped the capacity of anyone organization, new and stronger collaborations took shape. Volunteers also helped ease the difficult journey of resettlement. Even so, everyone involved is keenly aware that not all newly arrived Syrians are receiving the support they need to take root, flourish and contribute to this community.

Due to its sheer size and speed, this influx provides an opportunity to explore systemic changes that could make life better for our new neighbours from Syria—and for other waves of newcomers sure to come. This participant informed study set out to do exactly that, while also chronicling promising practices. Based on multiple interviews and reports, the unabridged study contains a chronology of the welcoming, a review of key coordinating bodies, a summary of settlement successes and gaps and suggested priorities for systemic change. This summary focuses on systemic change and gaps in services, providing some of the most-often-heard suggestions for change.

Areas Ripe for Systematic Change

  1. Inter-agency Coordination
    Despite remarkable growth in collaboration as a way of managing the surge of incoming Syrians, gaps, overlaps and service inequities persist.
  2. Client-centred Service
    A shift from funder to client priorities would heighten the likelihood that refugees (including those with particular challenges and trauma) receive appropriate support.
  3. Volunteer Mobilization
    Frontline agencies lament the fact that they were not able to use many of the Edmontonians who contacted them, eager to volunteer in the welcome effort. Frustration ensued, and opportunities to tap the groundswell of empathy were lost.
  4. Comprehensive Tracking & Support
    No one in the community has access to a comprehensive list of refugee arrivals and their status, making it harder to identify those who may be going unserved.
  5. Countering Racism
    Lurking beneath the warm welcome for Syrian refugees are signs of racism: A shouted “Go back home.” A schoolyard slur or fistfight. A hateful poster. Such actions are unlikely to fade away, given the global shift against those who are “not us.”
  6. Community Inclusion
    While friendly and welcoming, Canadians seem reluctant to draw newcomers into their networks, Syrians say. They hunger to begin weaving into the daily fabric of Edmonton life.

Settlement Challenges

  1. Poverty
    Many families struggle to pay even basic housing and food costs, let alone repay the federal loan many take out for passage to Canada.
  2. Language Training
    During the Syrian influx, long wait lists developed for language instruction programs, and many mothers stayed home from classes to care for young children.
  3. Employment
    Syrians with language and credentialing barriers struggle to find employment.
  4. Housing
    Many Syrian families were settled in housing they cannot afford to rent long-term and have trouble finding more affordable places that are in safe neighbourhoods and cockroach-free.
  5. Health
    Many Syrians arrived in Edmonton with a backlog of health concerns and had trouble finding doctors with the expertise and time to explore their complex needs in language they understand.
  6. Mental Health
    Mental health needs rooted in past traumas and present anxieties are going unmet due to a dearth of available mental health specialists, particularly in Arabic.
  7. Family Discord
    For newcomers, unfamiliar gender roles, discipline practices and social norms can result in conflict within and beyond families. Many families from Syria are deterred from receiving timely support by long waiting lists for family therapists, and by cost concerns.
  8. Education
    Large clusters of Syrian students enrolled in schools that did not have budgets and staffing to provide separate classrooms for English language learners. The situation is especially critical for teens, who risk not completing high school before age 19, when their funding stops.

The energy and attention attracted by the influx from Syria offers an opportunity for Edmontonians to co-create a better way. A more holistic, coordinated, client-centred way. The expertise is here, and in fact has expanded as a result of the scramble to serve our new Syrian neighbours. We have tested innovative ways to collaborate. We have gained greater capacity. We have experienced the value of meeting clients where they’re at. We have seen leaders emerge within and beyond the newcomer community. Our challenge now is to build on that momentum. In the words of a Canadian Council for Refugees report following a 2017 consultation in Edmonton, “In seeking the best possible outcomes for newcomers, the choice facing settlement agencies is not whether to change but how.” That same choice faces us all. As a community, we need to ensure that all refugees receive a level of support that equips them to put down healthy roots so that they can flourish and contribute, as so many are eager to do.”

Executive Summary:

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Research at a Glance is designed to inform the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) community and other interested parties about recently published, policy-relevant research from government, academic and NGO sources. The views expressed in the documents described do not necessarily reflect those of IRCC.


This narrative study, sponsored by the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, captures key milestones, representative stories and observations about a unique time in our history as a multicultural community, both to salute those involved and to glean insights that may inform our collective future.