We're running a bit late because of votes in the House, but since we do have quorum, I thought we would commence. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), and the motion adopted by the committee on March 8, the committee will resume its study of the federal government's initiative to resettle Syrian refugees.
We have before us today three groupings. As individuals, we have the brothers Mustafa Hajji Mousa and Abdulbari Hajmusa by video conference from Waterloo, Ontario; we have from the University Settlement organization, Benhaz Azad, director of language, settlement and social services; and from the Compass Community Church, we have Jennifer Miedema, refugee sponsorship chair, speaking to us by teleconference from the United Kingdom.
I will begin with the brothers, Mustafa Hajji and Abdulbari Hajmusa.
Welcome, gentlemen. The floor is yours.
I'm Mustafa Hajji Mousa from Syria. I came to Canada on February 23, to be specific.
The situation is better here. However, there are certain problems that we encounter.
I'd like, first of all, to start with the good things: the level of education, and the fact that we're able to get into schools freely to learn and improve our language, and to get integrated into the Canadian community, which is a good community. They are good people who like to do well. This is what I experienced first-hand as soon as I arrived in Canada.
However, there are some problems that have faced Syrians, in general. The most significant ones would be income, the income for a husband and a wife. It's not sufficient, in terms of the rental accommodation. The income is not proportionate to the cost of living. This is what I have encountered with my fellow Syrian refugees who talk, in general, about this issue.
I'd like to again thank the Canadian government for helping me continue my education. I studied geological engineering in Syria, but unfortunately I was not able to continue. Now that I am here in Canada, I look forward to continuing my education, to being a useful member of the Canadian community, and to returning the favour of having been given a chance to restart my life. I am studying English here. I am at the sixth level of the language. I intend to carry on with my studies at university, and to study electrical engineering. I hope that one day I will present something beneficial to this good country.
I'd like to reiterate my thanks for what you have done for us. We were in Turkey, and you helped us. When we arrived here, we found an even better reception.
Good afternoon, my name is Abdulbari Hajmusa from Syria. I came here in February. I was in Turkey before that. I would like to thank the Canadian government a lot for giving us the opportunity to come here to start a new life and to fulfill our goals and dreams in life.
I am grateful for being here and to have a chance to carry on with my life and to fulfill my life's dreams. We are grateful to the Canadian government for enabling us to come here after a lot of suffering with war. Even in Turkey we were taken advantage of a great deal. Here we've experienced good Canadian people and the good Canadian government that we're thankful for.
The problems we encounter here have to do with a driving licence. I have an expired driver's licence. There's no embassy or consulate to help me renew my Syrian driving licence while I am here. I am having to wait a full year. Obviously driving is an important thing here in Canada to go about my life.
I repeat what my brother mentioned about the limited income for a married couple. This is an issue for Syrians here because of the increase in the cost of renting homes. The Canadian government has given us wonderful health services and health coverage. Even the income assigned here allows us to live a dignified life. We are grateful and thankful for that.
I'm currently studying English as a second language. Once I am done with this, I intend to start college. I'd like to go to the police academy. I hope that one day I will become a beneficial member of the Canadian community and reciprocate by giving something useful to the country and the Government of Canada. Thank you very much.
I would like to thank the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration for the opportunity to appear before the committee.
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the government for taking Syrian refugees and saving them from the war and trauma they had been facing in their previous countries of residence.
I would like to convey a message from the Syrian refugees who have been receiving services from our different.... They have told us they are very grateful to Canada. They appreciate all the public and private efforts for their resettlement in Canada.
Many of them have been living in exile in countries other than Syria for the short or long term. They never had a chance to feel a sense of belonging to the countries where they were residing before coming to Canada. They felt they were not part of the host countries. However, their treatment in Canada has been totally different, and they show their gratitude and are appreciative to the government. They feel they are welcome and that they and their children can build their future here in Canada.
I would like to share some of our findings in providing services to Syrian refugees.
We have noticed a significant difference between privately sponsored refugees and government-assisted refugees. On average, the privately sponsored Syrian refugees have higher education and they have been actively looking for employment opportunities. Many of them have university degrees and a few years of experience related to their education, and they have been able to find employment here in Canada. However, they are facing issues with their credential evaluation, because the universities back home have been closed or bombed, and they don't have access to those universities.
The privately sponsored Syrian refugees are, on average, young families with no children, or one or two children. The government-assisted Syrian refugees have bigger families, a larger number of children, and they arrive with a lower level of education. However, most of them have experience in trades. Couples or families are very motivated and encouraged; they are very eager to learn, get engaged, and integrate in their new home.
Currently, the issue from our perspective is the Syrian refugees accessing community services. Some organizations have received funding from government, but they are facing a capacity issue because they haven't been able to foresee the number of families that are interested in attending. Now they are saying that they have received the funding, but they don't have space in their programs.
In a general sense, the settlement process for government-assisted Syrian refugees will definitely be longer. They need some sort of support to utilize their transferrable skills to start their own businesses. I have seen that they have already started in food or carpentry industries.
It has been said that housing is an issue for most of the immigrants, and not only for Syrian refugees. I can say that Syrian refugees are not excluded from this group. However, they are very motivated; many attend school and are hoping they can learn and start their engagement soon.
I'm done, thank you.
Greetings. I am honoured to have this opportunity to speak with you today. I represent Compass Community Church, a church of about 1,500 people in the Orangeville area. We would like to express our appreciation to this government and to each of you for your work and the care and attention being given to refugees.
As a church community, we've been deeply moved by the plight of refugees. A year ago, we felt led by God to reach out and share our resources by welcoming refugees to Orangeville, so we initiated a private sponsorship through a sponsorship agreement holder, sponsoring a group of Eritrean refugees, five cousins of a friend of mine in Orangeville. These refugees fled Eritrea 4 to 7 years ago, making perilous journeys through various refugee camps and via human smugglers until reaching Israel. Three of them have families, so the total number of refugees we are sponsoring is 16.
Given the past year's emphasis on and almost total resource allocation toward Syrian refugees, our sponsorship efforts were stalled for months. We had hoped to submit our applications by last December, but our sponsorship agreement holder explained that only Syrian refugee applications were being processed. It wasn't until June that our first application was accepted, and even now only six of our sixteen refugees have their paperwork in process.
Although we initially had much momentum, raising nearly $75,000 in the first three months and organizing multiple committees, the delay has been discouraging. We formed bonds with other local private sponsorship groups, but since they are all sponsoring Syrians, we have found ourselves left behind, as their applications moved ahead at a rapid pace.
In late May, our sponsorship agreement holder was informed of a cap of six refugees from Israel that they could help process for 2016. This cap is a limit imposed by our government. Compass Church was able to use these six spots to begin our applications, and we have received them under grievous protest for the 10 refugees we have to postpone until next year, and perhaps longer. We had hoped to settle this family together, knowing that their shared experiences and mutual support would have greatly benefited them in their transition to Canada.
Eritreans are a people who have known much suffering. Their own government exploits them, abuses them, and effectively enslaves them in forced military service. In its 2015 inquiry into human rights in Eritrea, the United Nations found systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations being committed by the Eritrean government, violations which may indeed constitute crimes against humanity. Citizens are routinely and arbitrarily arrested, tortured, made to disappear, or executed without trial, and the rule of fear exists throughout the country. There is no freedom of expression, association, or religion. A high percentage of Eritreans have fled the country, facing severe punishment if caught. Young people there know that if they want to choose a life for themselves, self-determination, they must escape and find it elsewhere. In doing so, our Compass-sponsored refugees endured much on their journeys to Israel.
However, their situation in Israel remains extremely difficult and has deteriorated greatly since they first arrived. The Israeli anti-infiltration law makes it almost impossible for them, or any refugee, to be officially designated refugees by the Israeli government, and there is much anti-African sentiment. Human Rights Watch has reported that Eritreans and Sudanese there are denied access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and that the resulting insecure legal status is used by Israel to unlawfully detain them indefinitely, coercing thousands into leaving for unsafe countries.
Many refugees, including some of my own group, are currently detained in the Holot detention centre or in jail in the Negev Desert, where there is substandard food and medical care. There are also reports of various human rights abuses. Amnesty International has called upon the Israeli government to stop flagrantly violating international human rights law with its detention of asylum-seekers in what is essentially a prison in the desert.
While I am very proud of my country and the way it has welcomed Syrian refugees—and we do welcome them all with open arms—it is unjust to prioritize one group to the detriment of all others, and I truly don't think that was the intent of the Canadian people.
I plead with my government to lift or greatly increase the caps given to our visa offices, particularly in Israel, where the need is so great. Please move more resources there and enable private sponsorship groups to extend our own hospitality and generosity toward those in desperate need.
There are many groups like mine wanting and waiting to sponsor refugees currently detained in Israel. We are being demoralized and stymied by these incredibly low caps.
Please improve the processing times for refugees in Israel. Why are they being lost or held in limbo for years? Refugees in Israel are not legally declared refugees by that government, and only sponsorships through a sponsorship agreement holder are permissible. As we've done for Iraqi and Syrian refugees, I ask that the minister extend similar regulatory exemptions to allow sponsorship of Eritrean refugees in groups of five, and community group sponsors without refugee status recognitions.
These measures are necessary to help this vulnerable group. All of Canada was moved by the sight of one small Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed up on shore a year ago. We weren't just emotionally moved, but we were moved to action. Last June, in three separate incidents, 700 more refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. Most were Eritrean, and many were women and children. A female cousin of one our Compass refugees was among them. May these deaths, may these people, and may these children not go unnoticed by our government. May the plight of the Eritrean people move us to action. Every human life is worth saving.
Sure. I was talking with one other agency, and they have received funding. They are planning to have some programs for mums and kids from Syria. These are customized for Syrian refugees, but they have noticed that the uptake has been higher than anticipated, and many people have been willing to attend the program. Now they are facing a lack of space.
What is happening is that at the beginning, when the Syrian refugees came to Canada, we were not thinking of interfacing with large families. When it came to the point that we had the opportunity of providing services to them, and we were providing one-on-one counselling to them, we realized that the families had very young children and that we needed to come up with some programs that could fit the range of ages of children. This is becoming a problem for us because it is hard to have a holistic program to cover all ages and in the meantime to be able to serve all of them.
The other piece, interestingly, is that they have been placed in rental buildings as a group. In order not to have the feeling of isolation, families have rental units in one building, so in one specific—
Yes, that's correct. Thank you, Chair.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all the witnesses for providing their important testimony. I want to welcome both of the brothers, Mustafa Mousa and Abdulbari Hajmusa, to Canada. Welcome to the Canadian family.
My question is for Ms. Azad.
First of all, thank you for the work you are doing with this organization. We know that teenagers find it more difficult than younger children to adapt to their new community and Canada, because of their age and more advanced stage of development and academic skills.
What do you find to be the best practices in serving the teenage group you are dealing with at your organization?
If I could just make a suggestion to Abdulbari, given that you're very focused as to what your long-term plans will be, I would suggest that you approach police stations in the Waterloo area, because I wouldn't be surprised if they would be interested in providing a mentorship program. That would obviously be very helpful, if possible.
My next question is for Ms. Miedema from the Compass Church. First of all, I want to thank you for your compassion and commitment. Second, I want to say, as you can appreciate, that the principle guiding the decisions on where people are welcome from at this particular juncture is who is the most vulnerable. I'm sure you will be happy to hear that insofar as government sponsored refugees are concerned, apart from Syrians, there are four countries that the government is currently focusing on: Colombia, Congo, Turkey, and Eritrea.
I just wanted to provide you with that assurance. The Canadian government is quite sensitive to the challenges that are currently going on in Eritrea.