Quiet, peaceful and happy is how Kadrih Hrkos describes her life in Syria before the war turned that serenity into noise, danger and tragedy, forcing her and her family to flee.
Hrkos had lived in her family home in Syria her entire life, before coming to Surrey in February 2020. The 61-year-old woman is one of an ever-increasing number of new immigrants that Options Community Services is helping.
Finding accommodation for the growing number of people, including for Hrkos, who is still on a wait-list with BC Housing, continues to be the agency’s biggest hurdle.
“People come to us, walking in our doors with luggage. They are coming here right from crossing the border, (or) they are coming from a shelter where they spent one night, or coming from other provinces where they heard that we can help them get access to housing or navigation into services,” said Diana Delgado, deputy executive director of employment and immigrant services at Options, a non-profit providing social services to people in Surrey, White Rock, Delta and Langley.
“The reality is, with the housing crisis that we have, it is challenging for us to provide all the services that the newcomers need.”
Most new immigrants are coming from Ukraine, Colombia, Afghanistan and Syria, Delgado said, adding that the main demographic is young couples and families.
In 2021, B.C. broke a record for the number of people moving to the province, with a net migration of 100,797 people – the highest annual total since 1961, according to Statistics Canada.
Of that group, 33,656 people came to B.C. from other provinces or territories, while the remaining 67,141 came from other countries.
When Hrkos, a widow, came to Surrey with her son, his wife and their two children, she decided that she wanted to live on her own while her son lived with his family. The sense of loss she feels for the Syria she knew and loved, however, has not eased.
“We actually ran away from the bullets,” Hrkos said in Arabic, her words translated into English by Laith Ghazali, settlement and housing outreach worker at Options Community Services.
“We lost our house. The only thing we could’ve run away with was our clothes that we were wearing… The house is (now) completely damaged and they took everything.”
After fleeing Syria — a nation that has been experiencing a civil war since 2011 — the family claimed refugee status in Lebanon.
Hrkos is undergoing treatment for uterine cancer, which spread to other parts of her body before she received medical treatment. The treatment has taken a toll on Hrkos and is making it hard for her to use the stairs in the house she lives in.
“I followed up with BC Housing, but they didn’t have anything for her,” said Ghazali, who has since found Hrkos another place to stay.
Even though the one-bedroom’s rent is below-market, it is still not affordable for Hrkos. Through homelessness-prevention services, which assist with rent, Hrkos is at the top of BC Housing’s wait-list for a different home in Whalley.
“Housing is a big challenge for all Canadians, so just imagine (how it is) for newcomers. They have no history, they have no work, so it’s not easy to ask the landlord to accept them… they don’t even have references, they don’t work right away,” Ghazali explained.
Preparing newcomers within the first couple years of them coming to Canada is crucial because once they are citizens, the settlement services that Ghazali provides will no longer be available to them.
This includes showing them around their community, enrolling them in English classes, if necessary, showing them how to navigate government services, utilize libraries and more.
There’s no instant feeling of connection to their new home, Ghazali said.
“Everything is new for them.
“Most of the clients, they come with so much trauma.”
Evictions of new immigrants is also common, said Jenny Lam, senior manager of immigrant services at Options Community Services, because the owner plans on selling the home or the person renting did not understand the contract they signed.
Because of the large groups of new residents coming to Surrey every day, resources at the organization are being stretched thin.
This sometimes means that Options staff will reach out to other organizations in the Lower Mainland to fill the gaps, which is also why the organization started fundraising in recent years.
“We receive funding from different government entities but there may be restrictions to what that types funds can provide supports to, also depending on the status of the people… Even if they come as protected people, they may have a temporary arrangement for housing, but then they have to find permanent housing,” Delgado said, adding that it often takes months to transition their clients out of temporary housing.
“The fundraising we do at Options is to fulfill those unmet needs… For us, it’s particularly paying for a night in a hotel, so that gives us time to figure out how we can help people, which shelters we can move them to… or providing food (and) food vouchers.”
Delgado has also noticed that some of their clients come to Options Community Services from other Canadian provinces, where they initially arrived from their home countries.
“We try to never turn down people,” she added. “It’s the biggest goal, yet also the biggest challenge.
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