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How housing (un)affordability in Vancouver is hitting one of the most vulnerable groups: refugees

It is very likely you’ve felt the crunch of Vancouver’s soaring rental prices. This year, the westcoast city was named the world’s second most expensive to live in, according to the 15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which rates urban middle-income housing affordability across the globe.

Imagine trying to find an affordable living situation in this market. Now, imagine navigating this situation with the added challenge of being a refugee. You’ve been displaced from your home, perhaps you’ve experienced trauma, and now you’re looking to build a new life in a climate where the odds seem stacked against just about everyone.

Like anyone in search of housing, the lack of knowing where you’ll be in two weeks’ time is unnerving to say the least. In 2016, Canada stepped up to support refugees following the crisis in Syria, and Syrians made up 71% of all new refugee arrivals in Canada that year. For these newcomers, their arrival in Canada came after an extended period of uncertainty, oftentimes after months or years spent in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and having had to flee their homes as a result of the civil war.

Part of their hopes for their new life in Canada, of course includes a safe and secure place to call home.

Government-Assisted Refugee families are provided temporary housing in hostels or hotels upon arrival until they find more permanent housing, but for newly arrived refugees, housing is just one of the several immediate that needs to be addressed.
 
While finding housing is undeniably important, refugees list finding employment and learning English as their top concerns – with social isolation and finding affordable housing tailing close behind. Housing, in accessible neighbourhoods, is an important foundation for a new life.

Family size and lack of credit and references make it difficult to enter the rental market. With occupancy rates as low at 0.8% in Vancouver, competition in the rental market is high.

In recent years, family units made up most of the refugee arrivals under the Government-Assisted Refugee Program, families that may be bigger than the average Canadian family, with a wider set of needs. On average, refugee families arrive with 6 members. 47% of Canada’s newest citizens arrive before they reach 12 years of age.

Landlords can set maximum occupants for a property but legally can’t deny housing because of children. But with a larger-than-average family, combined with no credit, and lack of references, settlement agencies are seeing instances where refugee families are being overlooked as viable tenants.

High cost of housing leaves little left for other needs. Government-Assisted Refugees receive crucial financial assistance in their first year in Canada. A refugee family comprising two adults and three children receives $785-885 a month for housing, and $649 a month for basic needs, for a total of $1399-$1499. There is also the Canada Child Benefit with payments available for lower-income families with children. But according to the Vancouver Sun, average rental prices in Vancouver have hit an all-time high of $2,100 for a one-bedroom apartment.

To secure housing, most will need to spend beyond the specified housing limit during the first year of benefits and then upwards of 51%, 75% and sometimes more of their total income afterwards. Families are needing to dip into incomes intended to support groceries, school supplies and more. Often they need to move to more affordable neighbourhoods further away from transit, work, and support services.
 
How can we improve refugees’ access to affordable housing?

As opposed to Government-sponsored refugees, those that are privately sponsored arrive with a support network. Canada’s private sponsorship program is gaining interest from other countries around the world. In this unique program, refugees are sponsored by a group of Canadians who are committed to providing financial and holistic support for new arrivals over a one-year period.

PeaceGeeks’ new app Arrival Advisor wants to bring refugee support services right to newcomers’ phones, in their language. PeaceGeeks’ technology and development geeks have been working to create a brand new platform for refugees and immigrants arriving in British Columbia with all the information for their settlement housed in one handy and free mobile app.

Arrival Advisor is there for new arrivals, to connect them with the tools and information they need at different stages of their resettlement journey.

While finding a home can be difficult in a city like Vancouver, Arrival Advisor is there to give newcomers a head start.

This article was written by Amelia Mitchell, contributing writer and PeaceGeeks volunteer.

Mar 11, 2019
Category:

PeaceTalks: Threats to independent journalism as the DRC heads towards its next elections

“It's not a Canada problem or a Congo problem, it’s a humanity problem.” - Babaluku, Congolese Rapper & Rights Activist

Though widely underreported, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in the middle of a political crisis.

On 23 December 2018, the DRC will hold its next presidential and parliamentary elections. The Congolese people will determine a successor to President Joseph Kabila, the incumbent since 2001. Tensions are high: in the last decade, Africa has faced an alarming trend of presidential term limit extensions, leading to political violence all across the region.

For Kabila, his second and final presidential term was slated to expire at the end of 2016. Kabila promised to hold elections by the end of 2017 — a broken promise as elections are only now happening this month.

Congolese citizens await the change of government with anticipation and optimism, but the elections also bring a sense of fear. The DRC hasn’t experienced a peaceful power transition since 1960. Recently, violent clashes between government and rebel forces are becoming increasingly common, spilling into the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, affecting a growing number of civilian populations. Attacks on local villages have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, displacing thousands to other cities within the DRC, and across the border into neighbouring Uganda.

On October 24th, PeaceGeeks hosted our 40th PeaceTalk at the HiVE coworking space in downtown Vancouver in collaboration with the SFU African Students' Association and Bunia Actualité, an independent news organization operating in the DRC.

The talk, titled Intersection of Independent Journalism and Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, brought a closer look to the challenges and opportunities facing the DRC and independent journalists.

The talk featured Don Wright, Amnesty International’s National Outreach and Coordination Manager, King Solomon, a refugee and student at Simon Fraser University who helped found Bunia Actualité, Babaluku, a Ugandan rapper and community youth activist and social entrepreneur, and Luc Malembe, journalist and Director of Bunia Actualité, who teleconferenced in from the DRC. The talk was moderated by Peter Wood of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Don Wright opened the dialogue with an overview of Amnesty International’s work responding to violence faced by journalists around the world, highlighting that professional foreign press and local agents alike are, in many regions around the globe, being “cracked down upon,” facing threats of imprisonment, and in some cases, even death.

Wright also highlighted the role Canada and its mining companies play in social conflicts in the DRC. Canada’s interests and holdings in the region include $40 million USD in annual imports, and $4.5 billion USD in mining-related assets. Wright added that many locals in the rural regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are regularly jailed -- or killed --  for attempting to protect their home environment from Canadian mining companies.

King Solomon, who emigrated as a refugee from the DRC to Canada in 2009, spoke to his personal experiences with the socio-economic and political crises. His testimony was emotional as he expressed the shame he felt at running away from the place he had called home his whole life.

Solomon helped to establish the website buniaactualite.com, one of the few independent news organizations in the DRC. Since its conception in October 2017, the grassroots news organization Bunia Actualité has gained significant traction both on its website and its initial Facebook page (started in 2015) which has over 111,000 followers.

Using an interactive online map, Reporters without Borders, which ranks the level of freedom of the press in countries across the globe, Solomon pointed out the vast instability and restrictions against free journalism in the world, and especially in post-colonial regions that continue to experience conflict.

Malembe, a well-known political commentator in the DRC, called in via teleconference to share his personal account of being imprisoned and threatened on several occasions for writing openly. Malembe was jailed for a month in the city of Bunia’s central prison in December 2017 for participating in a protest against the President.

“Today, [the DRC] is one of the most repressed countries for journalism in Africa,” Malembe said. Along with directing Bunia Actualité, Malembe also founded one of the largest civil rights movements in the DRC, called LUCHA, which translates in English to “Fight for Change.”

Malembe noted that the introduction of technology and online forums have allowed for independent journalism in the DRC because writers are no longer tied to offices that can be physically targeted. But efforts to control and repress these outlets have increased as well.

More than 150,000 citizens rely on the internet to learn about what is happening in their region. However, with lack of access to modern equipment, citizens face many technological barriers. Malembe called for action from Canadians to help overcome and solve these obstacles in order to help bring to an end the constant state of violence and war.

Babaluku, rapper and Founder of the Bavubaka Foundation, highlighted the importance of language, art, and music in connecting and mobilizing citizens, especially youth, to become advocates for peace within their communities. The Bavubaka Foundation is a Ugandan organization committed to restoring hope and healing in communities, using music and the arts to empower a new generation of  leaders in Uganda and all of Africa to use their voices to affect positive social change.

Reflecting on his work with youth, Babaluku discussed one of the biggest challenges he faces, that many do not see the significance of their efforts and do not believe they can contribute even within their personal communities, let alone globally. Their feeling of invisibility and powerlessness discourages their involvement in art and design, which Babaluku believes is key to overcoming crisis and violence. He emphasized that it is the artists, designers, and musicians leading the conversation for change.

A Ugandan-Canadian, Babaluku underlined that these political and humanitarian crises are global and borderless issues. “It’s not a Canada, problem or a Congo problem, it’s a humanity problem,” he stated. He did add that, as Canadians, we need to take responsibility for creating solutions and helping vulnerable communities, especially encouraging youth to realize their potential. Babaluku touched on the much-needed support from global allies to find a realistic and beneficial position within their foreign affairs policies to assist with tackling human rights crises.

The questions central to the DRC situation are also increasingly relevant here in North America:

What does it take to ensure an honest and fair election in a country strife with corruption, exploitation, and armed conflict? Can elevating the voices of independent journalists foster transparency and open dialogue, or simply increase polarization in an already divided nation?

The panelists left the audience with a the following action items:

  1. Spread the word. What’s going on in the DRC, whether it’s the upcoming elections or the intensive Canadian mining operations in the Congo, is not widely considered on the Canadian or global stages.
  2. Contact members of parliament to hire an ombudsperson to look into and raise awareness of the impacts of Canadian mining companies abroad.
  3. Donate to bridge the digital divide. Organizations like Bunia Actualité are looking for more resources, such as equipment and capacity, and support to sustain independent journalism. Learn how you can donate your old smartphone to equip local independent journalists to effectively report what’s happening on the ground in the DRC at www.cellsforchange.com.
  4. Watch this video by Yole!Africa: https://vimeo.com/288555974, shared by Babaluku at the talk. Yole!Africa is a cultural centre for youth in the DRC started by internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and activist Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, in order to provide alternative education opportunities and empower youth to thrive and promote peace in spite of conflict in the region.
  5. Engage youth here at home. Seek opportunities in your communities to teach and share your passions with youth to help them become community builders.

Kiara Scott is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Dec 12, 2018
Category: Thematic Issues

#peacehack: Hacking to improve immigrant and refugee settlement

On November 25 and 26 at the HiVE, PeaceGeeks and Simon Fraser University (SFU) brought hacking from the tech world into the community, with an event aimed to address pressing issues confronting immigrant and refugee settlement in Greater Vancouver.

For anyone familiar with the term ‘hackathon,’ an image of caffeine-fueled programmers huddled intensely around computer screens often comes to mind. But beyond being coding marathons, hackathons offer immense potential to connect diverse perspectives and propel targeted, impact-driven solutions. Bringing together newcomer service providers, immigrants, refugees, social innovators, community stakeholders and technologists, our November mini-hackathon called #peacehack put people, rather than the technology, at the center of the process. Facilitated by community tech partner Axiom Zen, #peacehack was an “ideas hack” that used Design Thinking methodology. The process challenged teams of participants to fully understand existing challenges for stakeholders and end users, before designing viable solutions.
 

The panel discussion on Saturday was particularly revealing towards the shortcomings of newcomer settlement in Greater Vancouver. One of the panelists was Mohammed Alsaleh, a Syrian refugee who was celebrating his second anniversary in Canada that Friday night, and whose journey to Canada has recently been featured in a poignant mini documentary by The Atlantic. Now a resettlement counsellor helping Syrians upon arrival for Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC), Mohammed recounted how existing processes can often feel divorced from the programming that is created to serve immigrants.

A similar sentiment was resonated by fellow panelist Angelique Muhorakeye, a Rwandan refugee and criminology student at Douglas College. Angelique arrived in Canada three years ago with her mother, sister, niece and son. She spoke of being unprepared for aspects of daily Canadian life, from details as small as knowing about sales tax, to aspects as large as knowing what resources are relevant for her family.

Likewise, panelist Michel Pouliot, Executive Director of Burnaby Family Life, cited that 50% of newcomers are uncomfortable navigating the current system to access the services they need, a finding from the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table. As well, the lack of resources, particularly for childminding and staff recruitment, continues to burden existing newcomer serving organizations.
 

Panelist Nadia Carvalho, Chair of the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, elaborated on the Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), which are community-based partnerships aimed at improving newcomer integration through knowledge-sharing, strategic planning and service coordination between organizations. One challenge, as she explained, is that programs are typically government funded for five years, but the process to become a Permanent Resident often takes longer. Nadia also emphasized expanding industry mentorship, noting that mentorship has been shown to increase employment income for newcomers by 60%.

The final panelist, Adel Iskandar, Assistant Professor of Global Communication at SFU, brought attention towards community cohesion and bridging the connection between Canadians, immigrants and First Nations. Acknowledging anti-immigrant sentiments, Adel pointed out conversely that throughout history, immigrants have always been shown to enhance the communities in which they take part.
 

After the panel, groups broke out to generate problem statements and identify possible solutions for four key challenges identified in the LIPs: improving access to information on services, strengthening local language skills, building community connections and strengthening networking and mentorship opportunities. A fifth group was formed around an issue identified during the event: fostering local understanding towards newcomers. With participants representing diverse age groups, sectors and nationalities from Afghanistan to Brazil to Iraq, the breakout sessions were buzzing with ideas. A recurring theme through each of the groups was that relationships — in one way or another — were the answer to each of the issues. Creating community through dialogue and understanding helps foster empathy and in turn, solutions. 
 

At lunch, we paused for a delicious meal prepared by Tayybeh, a collective of Syrian refugee women who started a local catering business from their home-cooked food. Afterwards, the breakout groups prepared to present their solutions and designs for prototypes. An impressive range of ideas emerged, which will be workshopped in the new year with local service providers who work in these areas.

These ideas included:

  • Language Mentorship Program: an app that matches newcomers who are seeking to improve their local language skills with local language mentors (retired or student teachers and other interested volunteers);
     
  • Keymunity: a self-directed case management engine that consolidates information about newcomer service availability, and helps to determine a newcomer’s need and service plan based on a user profile;
     
  • Keysultant: an embedded “live chat” tool on service websites, which can provide direct answers to newcomers’ questions through responses crowd-sourced from a community of service providers;
     
  • Linkedegration: an extension integrated with LinkedIn that would allow users to tailor their employment profile to their country or city’s job market based on their location. Features of this extension would include a resume builder, online mentors and invitations to relevant networking events and courses;
     
  • Building Community Connections: an event series that facilitates community building, following a tiered engagement model that allows participants to move through the series based on their comfort level. Events include orientations to the city and interest-based meet ups.

A second hackathon will take place this spring, where we will take the best and most developed ideas to teams of technologists in order to produce working prototypes.

Interested in participating or staying in the loop about how we are designing a more welcoming future for newcomers? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Written by Daniel Morton, Nikki Koutsochilis and Cherrie Lam

Dec 27, 2016
Category:

Vancouver’s Tech Sector Introduced to Pool of Skilled Immigrants at Networking Event

On July 18, PeaceGeeks co-hosted its first ever tech sector networking event at Unbounce for immigrants new to Vancouver in collaboration with the City of Vancouver (the Vancouver Immigrant Partnership), and the Immigrant Employment Council of BC. The event was aimed at introducing leaders in the tech industry to the pool of skilled immigrant workers in the city, and to connect international professionals with opportunities in Vancouver’s thriving tech world.

 

There is a growing need for networking events like this, given the struggles for employment faced by immigrant workers in our country, as well as the shifting needs of a diverse Canadian economy. By 2019, it is estimated that Canada will need to fill more than 180,000 positions in the information and communication technology sector alone­, and there simply are not enough Canadian-born workers with the right skillset to meet industry demand. Maintaining BC’s tech sector will be crucially important in maintaining a thriving provincial economy, as the industry generates over 23 billion dollars annually, and contributes 15 billion dollars in GDP.

 

This is at odds with the fact that it often takes between six months to a year for foreign workers to obtain a visa to work in Canada, which has the adverse effect of discouraging foreign talent from seeking employment in the country. As stated by a recent report in the Globe and Mail, the amount of time workers need to wait in order to obtain a visa is not in line with international competition for foreign talent, which means that Canada is losing the skilled immigrants it needs to countries with shorter wait times.

 

To compound the need for new immigrants to join the Canadian workforce, is the fact that new immigrants in Canada are faced with multiple barriers to locating employment in their chosen fields. For instance, the unemployment rate for recent immigrants in BC is double that for the rest of the population. This does not bode well for the Canadian economy. In fact, it is estimated that by the close of the decade, over one million jobs will open up in BC, and around a quarter of these jobs will need to be filled by those born outside Canada. For Natalie Comninos-Buisansky, a skilled immigrant who attended the event, securing employment is closely tied to access to a professional network. She knows that in today’s world, “relationships are the catalyst for success. One’s net worth is only as good as your network. This event offers the prospect of connecting with new people, sharing knowledge and referrals and the opportunity to raise your profile, and above all, build community.”

 

Among tech companies in attendance were industry leaders such as Electronic Arts (EA), Appnovation, AxiomZen, Hootsuite, Slack, Unbounce, and UrTheCast. The event was met with positive reviews from attendees, and was the beginning of an emerging effort on the part of the City of Vancouver to help integrate new citizens into the workforce and to improve the way immigrants settle in the city. Over the coming year, the Vancouver Immigration Partnership plans to partner with other sectors to create more networking events like this one, and PeaceGeeks looks forward to seeing more events of this kind in the city.

Aug 9, 2016
Category: Technology
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