Syrian refugees helping repopulate East Coast, but will they stay?

HALIFAX -- As Syrian refugees flow into Atlantic Canada, there's hope they'll help repopulate a struggling region even as the newcomers navigate the challenges of housing shortages and a tight job market.

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"You can bring hundreds and thousands and if they don't stay, you have lost, you haven't done anything," Lena Diab, the Nova Scotia minister of Immigration, said in an interview Monday. "Retention is always in my mind."

Approximately 946 Syrian refugees will have landed in Nova Scotia by this week, including a family of seven on Monday, with 1,500 expected by year's end.

That's over half of the number of immigrants the province usually attracts in international immigration in a single year -- and helps the province's push to reverse its projected population decline.

The Ivany commission, a landmark study on the province's economy, has called for Nova Scotia to more than double its annual immigrant figures, to 7,000 a year as a way to cope with depopulation.

Similar calls for increased immigration are being heard in New Brunswick, with warnings issued last year that the province's death rate is not outpacing its births and Premier Brian Gallant petitioning Ottawa for more immigrants.

According to the federal Immigration Department website on refugees, that province is expecting about 1,000 Syrians this year.

In Prince Edward Island, the province is expecting 250 refugees this year, about a quarter of its annual immigration last year. Newfoundland and Labrador has a similar number expected.

Some are bringing valuable skills, and are quickly being linked into private sponsorship groups determined to help them stay.

Ahmad Ayash arrived at the Halifax airport Monday with his wife Fatmeh and five children, saying he hopes to eventually continue his work as a civil engineer in the province.

"It's the greatest feeling," he said with a big smile as a church group welcomed him. "I am grateful and thankful for all the people here in Lunenburg who are helping us and supporting us."

It's the kind of support that Rev. Michael Mitchell of St. John's Anglican Church in Lunenburg, N.S., hopes to provide the new family, with a committee member already planning to look into how to help Ayash recertify.

"We hope because he (the father) is an engineer that he'll have a marketable skill," said the priest.

Diab, who speaks Arabic, said she visited a support centre for the Syrians in person on Monday, and says it helps that she can speak the same language in making people feel welcome.

"People were shocked, they were amazed and ... it's a great start," she said.

Claudette Legault, director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, says she hopes the support of the private sponsors will help overcome the challenges of housing shortages and finding jobs -- two problems that have led to refugees departing the region in the past.

"If they're able to build connections in the first year, that may keep them here," she said.

However, there are challenges in housing and in finding work for the family providers. Meanwhile, as families concentrate in Toronto and other large centres, it tends to create a magnet drawing more refugees.

Two families expected on Monday made last minute switches to change their destination to Ontario, resulting in sponsorship groups suddenly changing their plans to receive them at the Halifax airport.

Jacqueline Derrah of the Atlantic Baptist Convention in Saint John, N.B., said it can be disappointing for the volunteer groups longing for their arrival.

On the other hand, the director of the church's refugee program in the region said she's hearing from Syrian refugees that Atlantic Canada destinations are becoming more desirable in refugee camps because they don't face the same backlogs in processing and assistance as larger cities.

"We pick up government assisted refugees at the airport and help them get settled for six weeks. ... quickly the word has spread in the camps you want to go to Saint John or Halifax," she said.

There are also hopes in the region that the refugees will help inject entrepreneurial drive, as well as providing a workforce for the region's agricultural and fishing industries.

"They are highly motivated to work and we are hearing over and over and over again of job opportunities for these folks long before they arrive here," said Derrah.

- with files from Keith Doucette


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