Mr. Chair, and members of the committee, thank you for the kind invitation to speak with you today.
I am the director of programs at IDRF, the International Development and Relief Foundation. As our name suggests, IDRF provides effective humanitarian assistance and long-term development programming for people in great need around the world. For well over 10 years of our 32-year history, IDRF has been working in Lebanon with vulnerable communities. Since the Syrian crisis began, we have focused our efforts in Syria and now also in Turkey, providing relief to refugees and people affected by this conflict. As a proud Canadian-headquartered international NGO, we also support programming here at home, particularly for refugees, newcomers, and people living in poverty. While we are here specifically to discuss Canada's efforts to welcome Syrian refugees here, organizations like IDRF see Canada's work overseas as being fundamentally and inextricably linked to our efforts here to welcome our newest neighbours.
In March of this year, I travelled to visit some of IDRF's projects and partners in Lebanon and Turkey, visiting refugees who are living in informal settlements as well as those based in urban centres. Across all communities, I was struck first and foremost by the intense interconnectedness of mental health, employment, and education. While there, I spoke with educators who told me of the children born into this war who show clear signs of post-traumatic distress. Adults are sometimes differently but also strongly affected. Without adequate and sustained mental health services, we believe that Canada's efforts here in education and employment will be fundamentally undermined at the outset. I know this recommendation to invest in mental health programming has come forward here many times before, but I truly believe it cannot be said often enough.
In Lebanon and Turkey, and indeed elsewhere where we work, we see that schools and employment programs, services with which most refugees interact, can play a key role in offering safe, confidential, and dignified services for the whole family, particularly when educators and staff are trained resources. I am familiar with some of the programs that our school boards are offering, although I am by no means an expert, and would like to see these streamlined in post-secondary programs, job readiness programs, and early childhood education programs, and elsewhere if they are not already. As well, complementary and coordinated initiatives overseas and in Canada would help to bridge people from one context to another. Of course, such programs will only be truly effective if they are funded as sustained services over a period of many years rather than months.
Many refugees choose Canada as their home based precisely on their hope for a better future for themselves and their children which they cannot find in the neighbouring host countries where they currently reside. Their frustration will no doubt carry over if they arrive in Canada only to face similar challenges here. Training and language instruction is most effective when tied to concrete, guaranteed opportunities for dignified employment. IDRF is optimistic that many industries will see a rising demand for Arabic speaking skills. As well, we hope that programs will work with potential employers to create incentives and to expand employer awareness of the jobs they can offer and how they can restructure to support refugee skills development.
No one knows the experience of being a refugee in Canada like refugees themselves. One of IDRF's Canadian programs works closely with six different GTA school boards using a peer-to-peer tutoring model as an instrument for building inclusive school communities and promoting youth leadership. In addition to the skills development and interpersonal supports which such programs obviously provide, peer programs have tremendous potential for both adult and youth refugees to assume community leadership roles in both school and civic space. A well-designed, refugee-led program tailored to refugee needs and priorities could offer benefits in terms of Canadian experience, self-esteem, and general well-being.
In response to resettlement, IDRF has worked in close partnership with our friends at the Afghan Women's Organization, an excellent Toronto and GTA SAH and settlement agency. This model of international and local NGO partnership is one that we implement around the world. It is successful and it is one that we would recommend other similar organizations consider.
We began this partnership in direct response to the high demand on resources of settlement agencies, particularly around the liaison with private sponsorship groups. I am sure that many of you saw in your constituencies, as we did among our donors, that Canadians have been so eager to help that occasionally they have been frustrated at being unable to do more, more quickly. We further found that sponsorship groups were at times overwhelmed and confused by the responsibilities of being a sponsorship group even though they had participated in training programs. We know that these programs exist—we have referred to them ourselves—but information is sometimes stagnant, lecture based, groups still have questions, and there's a high demand on settlement agencies. An improved, dynamic community orientation program with two-way feedback might better prepare Canadians. This is yet another area where we think that peer mentorship is invaluable.
At IDRF, we have linked groups whose families have arrived with those awaiting families. This has reduced both anxiety and workload, and increased networking and skills sharing as Canadians look for ways to give while they wait.
In all cases, small to medium-sized organizations, faith groups, and informal networks, both in person and online, have a key role to play, and I believe they could be better mobilized and resourced to provide oversight and support to groups.
I would like to close with a brief story of an encounter I had in Istanbul in March, which has even greater significance for me today in light of the horrific attack that occurred there early this morning. I was meeting with a local agency that provides Syrian refugee children with remedial education, and when I told them that I was Canadian, one young man said to me, “Canada is a beautiful country. You have been so welcoming to the Syrian people, and we are so very grateful. Many Syrians are happy to come to Canada. Thank you for all that you are doing.”
I was deeply humbled to know that this was the reputation of my country for this man and I'm honoured to share that with you.
I know that at IDRF we see this both as a confirmation of the work that is happening and a call to even greater action. Here and abroad, we will continue to do what we can to surpass these high expectations that Syrian refugees and hopefully all refugees have of Canada.