African refugee faces up to homeless misery

Posted by admin on Aug 21st, 2008

By Carlito Pablo, August 21. Georgia Straight

With the low rental-vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver, it’s tough enough to find a place that’s suitable and affordable. Imagine what’s it like for a single mom with six children ranging in age from eight to 19. She can hardly read or write English. She and her brood have never lived in a western city before but have spent about 10 years in refugee camps in Kenya. They arrived in the country only about eight months ago. This is the situation Congolese refugee Bitisho Bembeleza has to contend with, and, according to the 35-year-old mother, it makes her cry every day.

“If you have knife, you take my heart…you will see what pain I feel,” Bembeleza said as she burst into tears in a three-bedroom South Vancouver apartment where an African family of three had taken them in. “If this lady didn’t say, ‘Come into my house,’ I’d be sleeping on the street with my kids.”

It isn’t that Bembeleza hasn’t looked hard enough. She told the Georgia Straight that she has responded to several ads, but when landlords hear her accent, see that she’s black, or learn about the size of her family, she doesn’t get any further.

“Nobody wants to give me a house…I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Finding decent accommodations is just one of the many issues confronting government-assisted refugees like Bembeleza, according to Paul Mulangu, executive director of the New Westminster–based nonprofit Centre of Integration for African Immigrants.

However, Mulangu also pointed out that large families who manage to get accommodations are often charged more by landlords, thereby putting a further strain on their finances.

A former Congolese refugee himself, Mulangu noted that although refugees are taken in by Canada on compassionate grounds, they arrive in the country already saddled with debts because the government charges them for airfare and medical-examination costs.

“They bring people on humanitarian grounds, but they load them with debt,” Mulangu told the Straight. “A lot of Canadians don’t know about that.”

In the case of Bembeleza, she owes the Canadian government about $10,000, for which she pays $150 a month from the refugee allowance she’ll be getting only for a year’s time. After that, she’ll have to support her family with a job or go on welfare.

On Saturday (August 23), the plight of African refugees and immigrants will be addressed at the integration centre when Jenny Francis, a UBC master’s student of geography, shares the results of research she did for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (The forum on housing and homelessness among African émigrés will be held at 640 Clarkson Street in New Westminster, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)

According to Francis, government-assisted refugees usually fare worse than refugee claimants who enter Canada on their own.

“For refugee claimants, it’s a little bit easier because they probably lived in a city and they managed to get here,” Francis told the Straight. “But government-assisted refugees, they have probably spent 10 or more years in a refugee camp and conditions there are enforced poverty and dependence. So they’re moving into a completely different and modern urban environment like a large city in a western country, and the language is different. They’re just lost.”

A draft of Francis’s work notes that government-assisted refugees often spend most of their allowance on rent, use their child-tax benefit cheques to pay Citizenship and Immigration Canada for their debt, and rely on food from food banks to get by. According to Bembeleza, she skips her English-language class on Fridays so she and her children can line up at food banks.

Francis’s research explains that a family of six receives $1,477 a month, of which $725 is intended for shelter. However, a family this size usually gets charged about $1,100 for rent, leaving only about $300 for food and expenses like heating.

“With no daycare and no family around to help, it is, in the words of one settlement worker, ‘automatic welfare’ for single mothers, who also often have few educational opportunities either, so the cycle of poverty begins here, sometimes leading to isolation,” the draft states.



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