Janice Gourgues Walz: Refugees’ Plight in Ottawa

Janice Walz

Janice Walz

by Janice Gourgues Walz

With 59.5 million people displaced in 2014 alone, the refugee crisis is heightened. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa are leaving due to war, persecution, or violence. Many choose to settle in Ottawa, home to the highest number of residents with a post-secondary education in Canada, a burgeoning workforce for young adults and a multicultural landscape dutifully established since the 1980s.

Women play a large a part of the refugee community, often times fleeing violence and choosing to immigrate with their children. The journey is often dangerous and the destination not always secure. When refugees reach Ottawa, there are many barriers, such as language and a lack of social network of family and friends. In addition, there are income disparities, mental health challenges and racism. Refugees are a vulnerable group susceptible to exploitation during their quest for autonomy.

Refugee613, a local organization, aims to assist refugees. It provides a pathway for Canadians and Permanent Residents of Canada to sponsor refugee families. They aid existing agencies and individuals with the coordination of efforts to bring awareness of the refugee issue at a local level. Of the 600 people currently on their mailing list, approximately 200 are interested in private sponsorship of refugees in Ottawa.

Louisa Taylor, Director of Refugee613 notes that “the process of making Ottawa truly a home is so much harder. People come here and they don’t have a network. They don’t know anybody and if you’re fleeing war and persecution, which refugees by definition are, you need that sense of belonging even more. What kind of city would we be if we had not stepped up and taken in 4000 Vietnamese refugees in 1979. We’ve had wave after wave: Somalis…Kosovars…have all moved here and made homes and made contributions that have made Ottawa stronger.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently announced that the Canadian borders would open to 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. They further will contribute $25 million to this cause. But, the crisis extends to parts of Africa too where the number of refugees may not be as high as from elsewhere, but the demand for entry to Canada is strong. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “processing is particularly slow in the countries of East and Central Africa covered by Canada’s visa office in Nairobi. The Nairobi office covers 18 countries, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda – countries from which large numbers of refugees come.”

The civil war that plagued Somali in the 1980s-1990s resulted in the approximately 20,000 Somalis currently living in Ottawa. This minority group faces an uphill battle in their settlement with many refugees needing to learn a new language, gain employment, attain affordable housing and to school their children. In the meantime, they must also balance their cultural integration in to Canada while managing at-risk youth and avoiding crime.

According to Canada’s Immigrant Labour Market trends from Statistics Canada, the labour market in Canada improved slightly for working-age, African-born immigrants. In 2007, modest employment gains pushed their employment rate to 72.3% from 70.3%, while their unemployment rate tumbled from 12.3% to 9.0%. Underemployment is a big concern for newcomers. Refugees may be highly skilled in their country of birth, but upon arrival to Canada, there are many facets of settlement they must overcome to thrive in their new host country. For instance, many refugees must undergo credential assessment and retraining and, moreover, they must overcome the culture shock upon moving to North America and adjust to such things such as weather and social values, which presents a different style of living.

Taylor states, “Ottawa resettles around 1,000 refugees a year – Nobody ever really hears about it. But, then, all of a sudden, the Syrian crisis has gotten so much attention. Because sadly the photograph of a three year old boy, Alan Kurdi really struck a chord in a lot of Canadians because they realized these Canadian relatives were trying to bring him here…the agencies that have been working with refugees quietly under the radar for decades suddenly have this overwhelming wave of public interest and they have been scrambling to meet that public interest in volunteering, in sponsoring, in donating. People who never thought of themselves as having a role in immigration before are suddenly stepping up and saying ‘I want to do something.’”

Private sponsorship is a way that Canadians can assist refugees and help to alleviate the refugee crisis. Groups of five individuals can sponsor a refugee family and, thereby, commit to take care of them for up to one year. Anyone interested in private sponsorship of a refugee family should visit refugee613.ca and the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program website for more information.

About the writer

Janice Gourgues Walz is of Haitian descent born in Montreal, Canada. She holds a degree in Mass Communication with a minor in Sociology from Carleton University. She has written for various magazines and blogs and is now a Guest Columnist for Black Ottawa Scene. Her interests include visual media, social issues and travel. You can follow her musings on Twitter at @Ms_Janice_.

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