By Alexandra Dawley and Marzieh Nezakat – MOSAIC, Refugee Settlement and Integration Program
Carol is a woman in her mid-30s with a warm smile and calming demeanor. She is well-educated and has worked internationally for several years as a social worker. Her passion for protecting vulnerable children and youth in need of assistance make her a fantastic social-services case worker with the City of Vancouver. Like many young professionals, more than half of her income goes towards rent. Nevertheless, she is optimistic and appreciative to have a safe, clean place to live and takes pride in being a respectful tenant who is quiet, dependable, and never fails to pay her rent on time. Carol describes her home as “a two-bedroom apartment that is aged but in good condition – a space my roommate and I appreciate and enjoy.” Life hasn’t always been comfortable for this model tenant. On the contrary, she knows deep rooted hardship.
A few years ago, a law was ratified in Carol’s country of origin which made being gay a criminal offense punishable by death. Consequently, state-sponsored violence broke out against the LGBTQ community and she received death threats. Carol made the unthinkable decision to leave her family, friends, career, and everything she called home behind to flee to Canada for safety. Upon arrival, with little money, and only a suitcase, Carol found herself living in a homeless shelter. She reflects on this season of her life:
It was very hard staying in a shelter. It was my first time seeing drugs. I was crying. I was terrified. I was on income assistance and was able to get a work permit. MOSAIC helped me with many things including resume and cover letter workshops. I was able to find employment and was constantly look for housing, but it’s hard, because people want references, and some landlords didn’t want a refugee. They assume because I’ve stayed in a shelter I had to be a drug addict, might not be reliable, or could make too much noise. Some preferred families or a mother and a child but not a single woman … Some wouldn’t call me back after I visited the place … They didn’t want to rent to a black person.
Thankfully, I was able to find housing with a landlord in Vancouver who had rented to a refugee claimant in the past with good experience; they were ok that my settlement worker was my reference. I’ve been renting this apartment now for one year without any issues.
More people are refugees than ever before. In fact, one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds due to conflict, violence, and persecution. As of 2020, the UN estimates over 79.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes worldwide – just over double of Canada’s population.
Canada has a long-standing history of providing asylum for people desperately seeking safety. There are two ways refugees come to Canada. First, they may be selected oversees through one of Canada’s resettlement programs. Resettled refugees largely come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Second, they may claim asylum at a border or from inside Canada, and if determined to be a refugee claimant, will navigate Canada’s thorough and robust refugee claim system with the aim of becoming a protected person – able to remain permanently in Canada. The countries of origin for refugee claimants in Canada are diverse, including people from Iran, Mexico, Columbia and Afghanistan.
Once here in Canada, refugee claimants quickly realize the next phase of life will be challenging. A significant hurdle is finding a place to live. Sadly, many refugee claimants’ early experience of Canada is on the streets or in a low barrier shelter. Displaced and culture shocked, they can be exposed to racism, homophobia, addiction, and mental health concerns reinforcing/creating trauma. As was Carol’s experience, opportunities for rental accommodation are limited. With no Canadian rental or credit history, possibly limited English, and no steady income, oftentimes, landlords are reluctant to rent to refugees.
How and why should landlords help?
1. Refugees have no say in whether they are refugees
A willingness to rent to refugees is a willingness to help someone who has been dealt an unbelievably bad hand. Imagine, what would it take for you to leave Canada permanently? How bad would things need to get? Violence, threats against your loved ones? War? We can hardly imagine being forced to flee for our lives. Now, imagine sitting in a shelter in a country with no power over your fate, being viewed with suspicion, and not even knowing if your refugee claim will be successful.
2. Renting to refugee claimants can dramatically change someone’s life
Despite challenges faced by refugees, several reports have indicated that refugees become important contributors to Canada’s economy and cultural diversity. They become our pharmacists, engineers, teachers, and friends.
As Carol said, “I want landlords to know refugees are part of their community. We’re motivated and would love someone to give us a chance! We want to be productive, to work, and to pay taxes. With housing and our needs met, we want to give back. I have spent the past years working in a shelter and as a youth worker, supporting vulnerable youth and the homeless. This has been my way of giving back to the community. I want Canadians to know newcomers are here to support and contribute. Not to take but to give back as well.
My connections with Canadians have restored my confidence. I’ve faced extremely difficult times and went through a lot without asking for help. I’ve managed to learn that everything is possible if you have someone believing in you. My Canadian ties believe in me which has deeply helped me move forward in life. I want to give back to the community by one day starting up my own shelter, this is my dream.”
3. Refugee claimants are highly vetted!
Have your current tenants been vetted through Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)? The refugee determination process involves security checks by CSIS and the RCMP, fingerprinting and interviews.
4. Refugee claimants are commonly educated on their rights and responsibilities as renters!
Refugee serving organizations like MOSAIC work closely with refugee claimants to make sure they are clear on rental expectations and laws which makes them fantastic and responsible tenants!
5. Refugee claimants can work!
Refugee claimants are eligible for income assistance and receive work permits. To find employment, the Province of BC funds customized employment trainings for refugee claimants. Reports have shown refugee claimants retain employment well and are motivated to be self-sufficient.
We hope you will consider positively impacting the life of a refugee claimant – and get a great tenant in the process!
Note: “Carol” is a pseudonym, and her face is not shown for safety and security reasons.
Alexandra Dawley manages Refugee Settlement and Integration at MOSAIC, which serves thousands of refugee claimants annually. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Marzieh Nezakat coordinates the BC CHARMS Project, aimed at enhancing refugee claimant housing experiences across the province, she can be contacted at [email protected].
This article was originally published in the summer 2021 edition of The Key magazine.