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Syrian refugees behind spike in Surrey food bank demand

A young Syrian migrant girl is held by her mother next to railroad tracks where migrants wait to cross into Macedonia Sept. 2, in Idomeni, Greece. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Source: issbc.org)

The food bank in Surrey has seen a 17 per cent increase in the number of clients it serves

Over the past year, 25,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada

SURREY (NEWS 1130) – A national report released this week shines a spotlight on the increasing number of Canadians who require help from food banks, but the City of Surrey has seen an even larger spike in demand compared to many other regions, and much of it comes from the influx of refugees from Syria.

Food Banks Canada says the Surrey Food Bank has seen a 17 per cent increase in the number of people requesting assistance in 2016 with refugees playing a big part in the jump.

Nearly 1,700 Syrians landed in the Lower Mainland over the past 12 months and more than half settled within Surrey. The report finds that because the refugees arrived with few resources and could count only on welfare-level benefits to rebuild their lives, many needed help.

“We have always welcomed new immigrants and refugees, of course, and the food bank is one of he places they come to,” says Marilyn Herrmann with the Surrey Food Bank. “More than 60 per cent of the Syrian refugees that landed in BC came to Surrey, so that created a huge need that we had not anticipated. Definitely they are coming because of the very small of money that they are trying to live on. It’s a challenge for them.”

Despite the surprise, Herrmann says the need is being met. “We never turn anyone away. I’m proud to say we always find a way to make it work and it is because of community support that we are able to do that.”

A soon-to-be-released survey from the Immigrant Services Society of BC suggests a majority of newly-arrived Syrians in Surrey have had to use the food bank regularly during their time in Canada so far.

“Because of low-income support rates, those on BC income assistance as well as refugees under federal assistance are having to access the food bank as part of their income security,” says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for ISSBC. “Our initial findings so far suggest 68 per cent are using a food bank on a regular basis to augment their income,” he tells NEWS 1130.

The full results of the survey are set to be released December 9th and Friesen says they will highlight how newly arrived Syrians have been settling in across the province. “Given the circumstances — the fact that they were selected on the basis of vulnerability criteria, that most arrived without any English or French, some had medical and mental health issues — they are doing remarkably well,” Friesen asserts.

All the Syrians who arrived in the first wave of refugees have found long term housing, despite living on welfare-level benefits, a complicated rental market and larger-than-anticipated family sizes. “Everybody has been settled and right now, for those who have come in since March, we have only been keeping them in temporary accommodation for two or three weeks.”

Friesen says one of the biggest issues facing newly arrived refugees is a lack of English language skills. “The vast majority of Syrians in this situation — because they don’t speak the language — are in English classes, which is what we expected. Over 75 per cent of those who have responded to us so far have stated that they are taking classes.”

He suggests language is the biggest barrier to finding employment. “Yes, there are some who are working in full time and part time positions, but language and the ability to communicate in English has a significant impact on income security.”

In the past year, Canada resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees across the country. Food Banks Canada says 13 per cent of people helped by food banks are immigrants and refugees.