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New life in Canada has challenges for refugees

At 24, Binod Rai is like many young Canadians. He has a full-time job, a cell phone, a computer, a strong desire to get a better education and a love for his family, with whom he lives.

At 24, Binod Rai is like many young Canadians.

He has a full-time job, a cell phone, a computer, a strong desire to get a better education and a love for his family, with whom he lives.

But a year-and-a-half ago, Rai, his parents and siblings had nothing.

Along with thousands of other Bhutanese refugees, they were sheltered in a camp in Nepal for nearly two decades, a place that had no flushing toilets, no heat and no electricity. The camp, run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, provide meals and schooling for the children, but little else.

In 2008, Rai's family was approached and asked if they wanted to resettle. They chose Canada ("even though it's so cold, not like the hot weather we were used to," he said) because of its healthcare and educational systems and, some 18 months later, they were on a plane with two other large Bhutanese families from the camp flying to Dubai, then to London and, finally, to Vancouver.

The families spent two weeks at Welcome House in Vancouver to get oriented before moving to Cottonwood Avenue in Burquitlam, where many refugees - including an ever-growing Bhutanese community - live.

The transition hasn't been easy, Rai said, though he feels he's one of the luckier refugees. Unlike many of his countrymen, Rai can speak English, thereby making the integration into Canadian culture all the more smoother.

His two older sisters also have managed to get full-time work (the eldest, Madhu, 26, wants to eventually work in the healthcare sector) while his two younger brothers attend Mountain View elementary and Port Moody secondary; their parents take English as a Second Language classes and collect food at the food bank on a regular basis.

With Rai and his sisters' wages and their parents' government subsidies, the family is getting by financially, he said, and they now consider themselves fully Canadian. "We love it here," Rai said, "and my parents are very happy."

For the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISS), the Rais are a success story.

Last year, according to recently released statistics, ISS helped 711 government-assisted refugees (GARs) resettle in the province, with the Tri-Cities being the top destination.

A total of 194 GARs made Coquitlam their home in 2011 - most of them from Bhutan, as part of a humanitarian effort by the federal government to place 5,000 Bhutanese GARs across the country between 2008 and 2013 (the U.S., Australia, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand also have Bhutanese resettlement programs).

Chris Friesen, ISS' settlement services director, said more Bhutanese refugees are expected to arrive in the Tri-Cities this year. Coquitlam, in particular, was chosen as their settlement community for several reasons, including availability of affordable housing and pre-existing services such as adult ESL classes and settlement workers in schools. The area is also close to Surrey, where the majority of the Nepalese community lives. As well, the Tri-Cities share general geographic similarities with Nepal.

According to a report, penned in part by Friesen, released last September, called From One Nation, One People to Operation Swaagatem, the Bhutanese refugee resettlement is a history-making program for B.C. as it is the first time all government and school agencies were on board to prepare for their arrival.

And, so far, there are encouraging signs. "Although unemployment is high," the authors write in their report, "early attachments to the labour market through paid or volunteer work are promising. While there is a long way to go before success can be claimed, the lower affordability challenges and higher employment being experienced are in stark contrast to earlier groups. Another positive development is the extent to which Bhutanese newcomers are utilizing formal services and programs."

But Rai said after the one-year transition, the ISS services and programs dwindle for GARs. "We want more help," he said from his three-bedroom apartment where the family of seven lives. "We have to do most things ourselves. My family is okay because we know some English but other families are not coping well with practical, basic things .... We have a sick child in our community and the father is having a difficult time."

Still, Friesen said more programs are available now for GARs than a few years ago "and we've specifically targeted the refugee communities that have been settling in the Tri-Cities with the goal of providing a much more co-ordinated wrap-around in the first five years," he said.

He acknowledged many Bhutanese refugees find daily life a challenge. "The refugee camp [in Nepal] provided them a sense of community where they knew where their food came from and that there was schooling. Everything was laid out for them and that sense of security and routine now has been uprooted so it is a tremendous transition and adjustment process."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 10:30 a.m., the Skills Connect for Immigrants Program for the Tri-Cities will be held at the Terry Fox Library (2470 Mary Hill Rd., Port Coquitlam). To register, call Anna Shultz or Arnold Juan at 604-684-2561 (ext. 2123) or email