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Bridging the gap in language training for refugees

Faced with a rising tide of anti-refugee sentiment the world over, the relative tolerance of Canadian policies have stood out against the crowd. But are we doing enough to connect newly arrived refugees to necessary resources, like language training?

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeting #WelcomeToCanada, Canadians’ openness to Syrian refugees have captured worldwide attention as a counterpoint to American wall building. A recent poll by The Globe and Mail reported that more Canadians than not think that their government is handling the refugee situation correctly.  Still, there is growing wariness that Canada is no exception: perhaps a larger minority than the government would be comfortable acknowledging think that Canada is taking in too many refugees.

While Canada remains welcoming, several polls point to real risks of opinions souring if arriving refugees are not well-integrated. A crucial step toward this goal, as seen by refugees and employers alike, is supporting newcomers to achieve working ability in either of Canada’s official languages. Here there is still a lot of work to be done.

Metro Vancouver is a heterogenous region of Canada that has seen over a 20-fold increase in immigration since 2001, and is home to 1,788 government-assisted Syrian refugees. A study conducted in the region one year after arrival by the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC) reports that many Syrians consider lack of language ability as a main stumbling block toward integration. Yet municipalities like Vancouver struggle to enroll Syrians into English language training.

What we have here is a mismatch of information—and it is refugees who end up suffering the most, but also the larger communities that are hindered from harnessing the talent when newcomers are unable to speak the local language.


This is frustrating—for Vancouver, it’s difficult to walk a block in the downtown core without passing under the awning of a language school. One report shows that more language students choose Canada over the U.S. A quick search turns up over 20 schools in Vancouver’s downtown core alone. This constellation of formal schools is complemented by an industry of private lessons, many advertised on specific bulletin boards or through word of mouth. The sector is booming.

Contrast this with the struggles of government-funded language programs in Metro Vancouver. Waiting lists for federally-funded English programs in British Columbia are the highest in Canada, with about 5,000 individuals in the queue. In Burnaby and Vancouver, waits for English classes with childcare can go up to 10 months. Meanwhile, monthly stipends for government-assisted refugees end a year after arrival, meaning that refugees who don’t get employed within the year, often a result of lacking language skills, will then depend on B.C. social assistance. Despite the progress being made to get refugees into language programs, the publicly-funded system is stressed.

It’s not like private enterprise isn’t trying to help. The problem is getting their offers of language classes to those who need them most.  In May, CBC reported that thousands of hours of private English lessons were going to waste. Private language facilities claimed to be offering refugees free ESL classes for which they were never taken up on. Across Canada, at least $5 million dollars worth of free lessons are going unclaimed.

This is a huge gap. Organizations working with refugees say that they were not made aware of these services from private language teachers, while those offering free lessons claim to have been ignored. What we have here is a mismatch of information—and it is refugees who end up suffering the most, but also the larger communities that are hindered from harnessing the talent when newcomers are unable to speak the local language.

So how do we bridge this gap? With Vancouver’s thriving tech sector and small but vibrant nonprofit scene, initiatives from these spaces may be able to reduce the burden on an overstretched system, by mapping free lessons and compiling private language services, resultantly disseminating them in an accessible and actionable manner toward refugees.

Moreover, a project of this sort can lend sizeable benefits beyond language training. A 2015 Vancouver Immigrant Survey conducted by the Vancouver Immigration Partnership found that the main reason for underutilization of settlement services was because newly arrived immigrants lacked the knowledge of which information was relevant to them. The dizzying array of available services, especially when only presented in English, can be difficult for refugees to navigate. Meanwhile, some immigrant services organizations are facing budget cuts (7) and government programs deal with large backlogs, leaving them little room to mobilize additional resources to help newcomers track down each and every lead. 

Given these circumstances, both new and existing tech and nonprofit initiatives have the opportunity to support newcomer service providers by helping direct information to refugee populations. For instance, bc211 already offers a rigorously maintained province-wide directory of all human services and telephone assistance in 167 languages. By leveraging tech collaboration, existing information can be streamlined in a way that is tailored to the needs and circumstances of new immigrants.

With language programs, connecting unused classes to English learners is not just about strengthening the abilities of newly arrived refugees. By connecting the right people to each other, we are strengthening our communities in empowering individuals to prosper, contribute and build their own Canadian stories.


PeaceGeeks is currently collaborating with local immigrants and refugees, immigrant service providers and coordinating organizations like bc211 to build Services Advisor Pathways: a web application that generates and consolidates pathways for resettlement, so that immigrants and refugees can more easily identify, access and navigate services relevant to their circumstances. If you’d like to support this project, we are now a top 10 finalist in the Impact Challenge, and we could really use your vote to get access to $750K funding! Please visit for more information and vote.

Written by Daniel Morton
(Photo from November 2016 #peacehack hosted by PeaceGeeks and SFU, hacking to improve local immigrant and refugee settlement)

Mar 17, 2017