Refugees need to repay for flight to Canada after arriving, but it’s not that easy

A year after their plan touches down in Canada, refugees are required to start repaying their travel loans. But it can be a challenge for larger families. Many are struggling to find meaningful work, cover rising costs, learn a new language and find their place in a new country.

Samiullah Ashna arrived in Calgary with his wife and five children two years ago, fleeing violence and persecution in Afghanistan.

It was a life-altering journey that took the 40-year-old father, his wife and their young children — ages four, seven, nine, 11 and 13 — from Kabul to Islamabad and then on to Calgary.

As government-assisted refugees, they were granted permanent residence status as soon as they arrived and were provided essential supports for up to 12 months. However, after a year, the federal benefits end and their travel loan payments start.

The Immigration Loans Program provides refugees with access to funding to cover a number of expenses, including travel to Canada, establishment assistance and the fee for the right of permanent residence.

In Ashna’s case, the total bill is $19,400.

“To be honest, it’s like a huge amount for all newcomers,” he said.

Ashna wants to pay back every penny — and he’s already paid $2,200.

Samiullah Ashna’s statement of account from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for his travel loan.

Samiullah Ashna’s statement of account from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for his travel loan. (Samiullah Ashna)

Ashna says he’s applied for roughly 100 jobs, and the search continues.

He says many fellow Afghans have settled to work in warehouses or driving for Uber or food delivery apps. He has also applied for those jobs but hasn’t received any responses, let alone a job interview.

‘People are struggling’

The director of resettlement and integration services with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) says pressure from the cost of housing, utilities, food, clothing and other essentials is squeezing most everyone, including refugees.

CCIS provides support for all newcomers, including pre-arrival planning, airport greetings, housing, medical, employment and community integration services.

“With the transportation loan, we have heard that some people are struggling to start paying back,” said Bindu Narula, who is in charge of resettlement and integration for the society.

The benefits under the government’s Resettlement Assistance Program can include a household startup allowance and monthly income support payments. When those benefits end after a year, families can transition to provincial income support programs if they haven’t been able to find work.

Bindu Narula is the director of resettlement and integration services with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

Bindu Narula is the director of resettlement and integration services with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Narula says her organization has helped people renegotiate the terms of their loans. She says the federal government is flexible when it comes to lowering payments or extending the amount of time that’s needed to pay off the loan, and there is no interest on the loans.

Forgive the loans?

At the Center for Newcomers, the president and CEO says most refugees are “itching” to work and want to take care of themselves and their families. But in some cases it can be difficult.

The center is a resource for immigrants and refugees of all nationalities who are settling in Calgary.

Center president Anila Umar says some refugees face complex needs, including post-war trauma, disabilities and chronic illnesses. She says that in those cases, travel loan payments should be deferred or the loans forgiven altogether.

“The majority of refugees aren’t using the full one year (of government benefits,) they’re actually working, they’re actually doing things. So for the ones that aren’t actually able to pay, they actually have real needs “Ulmar said.

In 2022, Canada will resettle 47,600 refugees, the largest number in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. The trend continued in 2023, with another 51,000 refugees, according to Canada Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

The chief executive officer of Immigrant Services Calgary, an agency that helps newcomers get established in Calgary by connecting people to various services and programs, doesn’t believe the loans should be forgiven in specific cases, or for specific groups. Instead, Nawal Al-Busaidi would like to see adequate supports to establish refugees’ independence.

“By giving them accessibility to good opportunities, to jobs that are paid equally and equitably, I don’t believe that the loan should be forgiven. But if they are forgiven, they should be forgiven for everybody and not just one group and not the other,” said Al-Busaidi.

David Matas, an immigration and refugee lawyer and author based in Winnipeg, says there should be more flexibility in easing the burden on private and government-sponsored refugees.

He says private groups can sponsor only so many refugees before it impacts the number of people allowed to settle here. And he says government-sponsored refugees who face ongoing resettlement challenges should be given options to repay the money.

“Not in every case, but in cases where the refugees really can’t get off the ground, it might make sense … to allow for other sources of payment besides the refugees themselves,” said Matas.

Deferred, not canceled

In an email, IRCC was asked under what circumstances repayment can be extended or forgiven.

“If repaying a loan is causing a person to experience financial hardship, an individual may have loan repayments deferred, vary the amount of the payments or extend the repayment period,” said Mary Rose Sabater, a communications advisor with IRCC.

To the end of March, she says, there were 43,227 outstanding loans. She says repayment terms for loans exceeding $4,800 allow up to eight years for repayment.

Wali Mohammad Dawari with his three sons and two daughters in the living room of their Calgary home.

Wali Mohammad Dawari with five of his seven children in the living room of their Calgary home. (Wali Mohammad Dawari)

Wali Mohammad Dawari and his family were part of that surge of refugees who settled in Canada in 2022. His wife and seven children fled Afghanistan and arrived in Canada in March of that year.

His children range in age from two to 26, and three of his older children are working part-time while going to post-secondary school. Dawari works part-time with Immigrant Services Calgary. He says everyone pools their money together to support the family and slowly chip away at the $15,000 travel loan that he says he owes.

“When you have a number of people working together collectively, they will survive much better than those people who are single,” he said.

Through his work, he sees the struggles that many refugees are still encountering — even two years after their arrival. One of the challenges has been the lengthy waitlist for English language training.

“There is not that much capacity to cover all newcomers at once,” said Dawari.

“Most of the newcomers are waiting six, seven, eight months to get enrolled in one of the English classes.”

Job hunt continues

That’s one of the big challenges for Ashna, who is still looking for work, with the added pressure of covering all of her rising expenses. He rents a home for $2,800 per month, plus $500-$600 for utilities. His family is now receiving provincial income support to help cover the costs while his job search continues.

Back home, he worked at the British and Canadian embassies in various programs that help empower women. So far in Calgary, he’s still waiting to find work and has been taking courses in business administration.

“To be honest, recently I am applying for every job, like warehouse job … delivery driver, because I haven’t received one response from other organization — nothing,” he said.

Samiullah Ashna’s children, aged 4, 7, 9, 11 and 13.

Samiullah Ashna’s children, ages four, seven, nine, 11 and 13. (Samiullah Ashna)

Ashna says many friends in the local Afghan community are professionals who have settled for low-paying, unskilled jobs, and it’s been frustrating to get what he calls “Canadian experience.”

“All of them are disappointed,” he said.

“My message for the employment agency: please consider these people who came to Canada who are newcomers, they have lots of experience, they have good qualifications.”

He says he has no regrets moving to Canada, which he calls a great country for immigrants. He just wants an opportunity to prove that he can contribute in a meaningful way and settle his outstanding debt.

Brian Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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