Syrian refugee families struggle amid delays in benefits
August 1, 2016
The Star | Bedrettin El-Muhammed didn’t worry about signing a $1,735 monthly lease for a three-bedroom apartment in March, even though his family of seven would be receiving an allowance of just $1,600 a month as government-assisted Syrian refugees.
That is because his five children, ages 13, 11, 9, 7 and 5, were eligible for about $2,000 a month in federal and provincial child benefits.
But a chronic delay in processing time for child benefits has been a hardship for the El-Muhammeds and many other Syrian refugees without private sponsors to fill the gap.
The family from Aleppo, who moved out of the shelter at the Toronto Plaza Hotel on March 21, has spent the last of a one-time federal grant of $5,400 to cover first- and last-months’ rent and other start-up costs for their new life in Canada.
But for weeks, the El-Muhammeds have lived on the edge, counting on the food basket they pick up once a month from the ISNA mosque while running grocery bills on a credit card that has a $1,000 cap.
“We are very grateful to Canada and its people. We feel peace and safe here,” said El-Muhammed, 36, who owned a small oil distribution agency back home. “But we struggle just to make sure we have food to feed our children.”
The El-Muhammeds and other government-sponsored Syrian families would have had no trouble making ends meet, but a Senate committee says a delay in receiving child tax benefits from the Canada Revenue Agency has meant they are coming up short in paying all their bills.
For El-Muhammed’s family, the relief finally came late last week, almost four months after they applied for the benefits, in a lump sum backdated to April.
While Syrian families sponsored by private community groups are also caught up in the delay, they can count on their community support network to bridge the gaps until the benefits kick in.
COSTI, the settlement agency tasked with the government-assisted Syrians’ resettlement in Toronto, said the government allowances are in line with the social assistance rate for Canadians, but since most Syrian families are large, the meagre government support must be supplemented with child benefits.
“It’s been a real struggle. “The child tax benefits can make a big difference,” said Mario Calla, COSTI’s executive director. “But the benefits take about three months to implement. That makes the first three months extremely difficult for them.”
Jamal Khan, who runs an elder abuse prevention group, received a call for help in early June from a Muslim friend raising money to buy food for a group of Syrian newcomers.
Khan and his volunteers have since donated and raised money to buy food for some 34 families.
“There are more people requiring help that we don’t know of,” said Khan, a retired staff sergeant with the Toronto Police Service. “These people all have large families and are affected by the delays in child benefits. Canada has already screened them. We trusted them and brought them here. We should expedite the processing of their child benefits applications.”
In early July, a Senate committee made the same call to the federal government so the refugees do not face undue financial hardship — one interim recommendation of its ongoing study into the Syrians’ integration.
“Canada has welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees with fine words and open arms,” said Senator Jim Munson, chair of the Senate committee on human rights. “These alone are not sufficient to address the very real and very urgent problems.”
The revenue agency insists its processing time has not increased due to the inflow of Syrian refugees and says completed applications usually take up to 10 days to process with first payments delivered around 45 days from the receipt of the application.
“As part of the contingency plan, the CRA worked closely with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to ensure that all benefit-related questions were answered and to quickly resolve any problematic cases that may have arisen,” said CRA spokesperson David Walters.
“No processing issues have been brought to our attention so far, although the CRA remains available to help IRCC with the settlement of refugees.”
Walters said Syrian refugees’ applications are not treated any differently and hence there is no separate tracking mechanism to identify the number of Syrian child tax benefit applications received or in the queue.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said he is aware of the challenges the Syrian newcomers face.
“When you bring in 25,000 refugees in very quickly over four months, it will never be perfect,” he said during a stop in Halifax this month. “There will always be hiccups or challenges along the way.”