Michaels: Syrian refugees need more help with integration

"It's all fine and dandy to meet these Syrian refugees at airports with flags..."

At a charming ceremony marking the last days of a summer class for  English language learners, songs were sung, introductions were made and the benefits of welcoming this city’s new residents with open arms became abundantly clear.

These men, women and children who trundled onto a stage at Evangel church’s music room Thursday to introduce themselves with newly acquired words and receive certificates for class completion, were from Syria, Thailand, China, Japan and Germany and many barely spoke English when they arrived to this country.

With season of lessons behind them, however, some could string together full sentences about who they are while others wrote essays about how much the learning the language meant to them.

Everyone on stage was beaming, either out of bashfullness or pride, and all gathered in the audience smiled happily in return. It was that natural kind of smile that deserves remarking on.

For all the loveliness in those moments, however, the ceremony highlighted an issue that requires some attention, sooner than later.

Immigration Canada dollars aimed at local language training dried up in June, so the $22,000 required to run the program this summer came from half dozen churches of varying denominations banding together, with the assistance of the Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy.

Alan Monk, who represents Trinity Baptist Church in the co-ordinated community effort to help refugees,  pointed out that supporting the program was an obvious choice. One that the government should have factored in to their Syrian integration plans.

The only way these new residents are going to support themselves in a year, when their sponsorship funding dries up, is if they can get a job, he said.

To get a job, they will need to speak English.

“It’s all fine and dandy to meet these Syrian refugees at airports with flags, but for them to succeed they need to be able to integrate,” he said. “These people need more than a selfie.”

An Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy representative said it’s yet to become clear whether there will be a resumption of funding for local language lessons.

And, he added, even if programming resumes there’s still a question about whether women with school age children will be able to access it.

“School age children will be back to classes. The men won’t have a problem,”  said Francis Langevin with ORCA.

“But the moms have a a harder time.”

Many have young children, and are nursing. Even those who have older children can’t afford the cost of the childcare needed so  they take lessons.

It’s a curious shortcoming in the welcoming of this new community.

One that deserves attention, if for no other reason, so  this new community is given every opportunity to flourish in the years to come.

That will really be something worth smiling proudly about.