Akram Khaled and his wife, Fadya, were devastated. Their home had just been razed by one of the countless airstrikes on the besieged Syrian capital of Damascus. After the initial shock, they fled with their four children to the relative safety of Lebanon. With his family’s future in mind, Akram departed alone for Canada on a tourist visa. He applied for asylum in March 2013, on arrival at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The family reunited a year and a half later.
A brick oven builder by trade, Akram had to start over in his new country. He studied English intensively for months before a restaurant would hire him. Holding multiple jobs in the food service industry, Akram worked hard and saved every penny. He eventually accrued enough capital to open his own shawarma shop named Chamsine, in Toronto’s Christie Pits neighbourhood.
“I hope to give something back to Canada — to prove that we are worth the chance that was taken on us,” Akram says in Arabic through an interpreter.
As more than 26,000 Syrian refugees settle in Canada, a debate surrounding their cost to the country has emerged. Contrary to the popular opinion that assumes refugees are a burden, academic research has shown Akram and his fellow Syrians will bolster Canada’s wealth in the long run.
“Refugees represent a net contribution to the Canadian economy,” says Dwayne Benjamin, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. On average they have lower earnings than other immigrants. But Benjamin asserts they add value to the economy through the labour they provide.
Data supports Benjamin’s statement. A report from Vancity banking in B.C. estimates that Syrian refugees will generate more than $500 million over 20 years for the local provincial economy.
It is important to put the refugee influx into perspective. The federal government recently budgeted more than $670 million for the Syrian #WelcomeRefugees program. In a vacuum, this number seems staggering, but it amounts to a paltry 0.2 per cent of Canada’s budget. That’s under $20 from the pocket of each Canadian citizen to fund the program. Accommodating the 15,000 government-sponsored Syrians in Canada is the equivalent of making room for 15 additional people in a sold-out Air Canada Centre, home of the Raptors and Maple Leafs.
Other refugee groups can provide insight into the potential economic benefits of the Syrian wave. Between 1979 and 1981, after the Communist victory in the Vietnam War, more than 50,000 Vietnamese boat people were taken in by Canada. They are now a thriving community full of doctors, lawyers and teachers. Some have even paid it forward and privately sponsored Syrian refugees.
Canada needs immigration to survive. It has a rapidly aging and dwindling working-age population. Statistics Canada predicts that by the 2030s close to one in four Canadians will be 65 or older. In the same timeframe, the working-age population will decrease by more than 10 per cent. The Halifax Chamber of Commerce recognizes its need for young labourers and has called for an increase in the intake of newcomers. In 2014, the Conference Board of Canada predicted that Canada would need to increase annual immigration to 350,000 a year over 20 years, a jump of 100,000 immigrants per year.
In addition to addressing shortfalls in today’s labour market, refugees bring a longer term payoff. Recent Statistics Canada numbers has demonstrated that many of the children of refugees who came to Canada between 1980 and 2000 are excelling. They have similar graduation and university entrance rates as their Canadian-born peers.
Today, four people who arrived in Canada as refugees hold public office as members of Parliament, including Minister of Democratic Institutions and MP for Peterborough-Kawartha, Maryan Monsef, who is originally from Afghanistan.
“I’ve worked with thousands of people who’ve come here as a refugee. They create jobs and do many jobs that those born here may not be doing. Their children often grow up to become professionals,” says Scarborough-Rouge Park MP Gary Anandasangaree, a former Tamil refugee.
Akram’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Fatima, has had little trouble integrating in Canada. Her love for the country is outdone only by her work ethic. While attending school, she works five days a week at her family’s restaurant. Studying at Greenwood Secondary, a school for newcomers in the Toronto District School Board, she hopes to one day become a doctor.
Greenwood principal Kimberly McLaren says that Fatima has been a “very good” student and that she has witnessed “beautiful integration” amongst most of the Syrian students. All of the refugee students in her school are keen and eager to learn, she says, as many have not been in school for a long time. McLaren says she is positive they will contribute greatly in the future.
Sitting in his modest restaurant, surrounded by his children, Akram Khaled glows with pride: “Canada has made them feel like children again, and has given them their dignity back.”
If past history and recent statistics are any guide, Akram’s children will give much back to Canada.
Rignam Wangkhang is a freelance journalist and former consultant at the UN Refugee Agency. In 1971, his father was among the very first Tibetan immigrants to come to Canada.
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