Last week I spent some time reviewing data about thousands of Syrian refugee families that gained asylum to resettle here in Canada. One purpose of the study was to determine the degree of self-sufficiency (mostly demonstrated by meaningful employment) achieved in their new environment after the first year. While at first glance the data might seem disappointing, it was also pretty informative about conditions for success.

Syrian refugees came to Canada in two streams: privately sponsored and directly with the government. The biggest data point for me was that approximately half of the privately sponsored refugee families had found employment after a year; while for the government direct stream, the figures were more like one in ten. Is this a failure by the government? I’m not so sure. More likely a very different set of opportunities. Let me caution that the following points are my speculation and are not statistically validated with controls.

Privately sponsored refugees begin their first day with a local network of advocates. Whether sponsored by friends or family members or through a church, service club, and community groups, there was an existing support team already in place. This team would offer both a financial and social responsibility to help their refugees settle and succeed quickly. (In fact, given the delays in approval for many of the private sponsorships, the local networks were probably over prepared and waiting to go, in contrast to the government stream refugees who come in large numbers with facilities and services scrambling to be ready in time.) Each sponsoring group has a variety of members working on everything from clothing and housing to community outings and skills development. Moreover, with the shared monetary contribution of the sponsors, they have a financial as well as a humanitarian level of engagement in their new charges. My hypothesis is that generally, the privately sponsored refugees have had a much more active, varied, engaged and especially numerous number of helpers all through their first year.

Having done it myself several times for work, I can confirm that moving into a new country is unbelievably challenging. Luckily for me, I was fortunate enough to have the big variable of a job secured in advance. I can’t imagine doing both on top of enduring the horrific situations of Syria’s civil war. With that said, I believe there is a huge psychological boost when facing a challenge like this; to know that so many people are on your team, not only wanting you as part of their community but also doing everything possible to help you succeed. Particularly in the case of finding work, a large network is much better than an employment counselor. For those sponsored by relatives and Syrian diaspora already here, the need to learn the language and other first steps of settlement is pre-validated by living examples that it can be done and these are the necessary steps to adjust.

Contrast this with the situation of thousands of refugees in government sponsored programs. There may be case workers and other support, but refugees are probably only getting a fraction of a person who is addressing the needs of many others at the same time. This is much less impactful than having their own private team. Not to say that this is right or wrong, it’s just the reality of having the government do this in large groups. While there is initial comfort remaining grouped with your own kind and culture, it delays necessary exposure to Canadian communities and language. (Case in point for ex-patriot workers, if you are the only foreigner at your company/organization, you learn the language and join the culture quickly. If there are a cluster of ex-patriots in a foreign setting, they often go indefinitely without learning the language or ever experiencing the new culture.)

There are undoubtedly additional hurdles impairing transition. Privately sponsored refugees often had a greater level of time and resources to plan, while our government (rightly) took refugees in the direst circumstances. Many of these already disadvantaged on factors like education, skills, and health. I would still contend that sponsored refugees with a team of helpers will usually respond better to getting ahead and even having local employment created for them in smaller communities. Better on-ramps mean more progress, and faster. Last year, I heard several stories about refugees who were farmers in Syria being settled in farming communities here in Canada. Despite the changes, this seems like a better, more comfortable skill transfer to work with crops, orchards, and livestock. Alternatively, consider the challenge of learning to be a taxi driver in an unknown urban environment. It may turn out that farming may be one of the fastest transitioning occupations for refugees – quite different from our regular points-based immigration scores for conventional immigrants looking for higher skilled positions in Canada. I think it will be interesting to track results in farming communities after several more years.

So, what do I conclude? Canada took a great initiative bring 35,000+ refugees here, and I hope we would do it over again. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we may be able to help more of them complete their transition faster by stimulating more private sponsorship support once they arrive and cutting mass programming at urban centers. I think the cost would be similar and more of the government resources could go into stimulating private groups themselves. Government sponsored programs will always be needed, but currently, I think they are ~70% of the Syrian total. If we could reduce that ratio to 50% or even 30%, our outcomes could be twice as good. As an engineer, I always do a quick feasibility check on proposals. 35,000 refugees equals about 10,000 families. Canada has over 10 million families, meaning about 1000 for every refugee family. if we can figure out the engagement mechanisms, there should be more than enough resources to assist everyone.

The bottom line for me is that success comes most often when you assemble and motivate the best teams. While Canada got some of this right, there is learning to make it better. For new immigrants, small village community support seems to me to be better than a national project. It’s also safe to say that completing a transition to a new life in Canada is a project of decades and we need to design programs for sustainability and faster practical progress.

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By David Bowden

Business Growth Transformation


Visit Osborne-group.com for other Principals’ ideas and opinions on a range of topics. The Osborne Group provides interim executive management, consulting and project support across all sectors and over a broad scope of service areas.

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