[Editor's note: This is the second in a Tyee Solutions Society series, running Monday to Thursday this week, that examines the unique housing challenges of refugees who've fled violence in other countries and are now settling in British Columbia. Find the first in the series here.]
In an alley behind a run-down noodle shop off Kingsway in East Vancouver, a group of men in T-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops stands smoking, laughing, and talking among parked cars. A piece of hand-painted plywood mounted high on the garage door behind them displays the name of the group, the Achehnese Canadian Community Society. Its members comprise Canada's first generation of newcomers from Acheh Province, Indonesia, a troubled, violent region on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, west of Malaysia.
The 15 or so men gathered in the alley are relatively young. Most are in their mid-thirties, part of approximately 200 families from Acheh province living in Metro Vancouver. About 60 of those families contribute $20 a month each to help pay rent for the Community Society's basement meeting space, which features a large common room for Muslim faith practices, and for sitting together in wide circles to socialize and share information.
Most importantly, they come here to support one another. They have all lived through unspeakable events that forced them out of their home country. Now they grapple with new challenges. Chief among them are the gaps between the incomes they earn, mostly in the construction or food-service industry, and how much it costs to put a roof over their heads -- even at the bottom end of the rental market.
Their housing and income struggles are similar to other refugees in the Lower Mainland, who commonly struggle with poverty, low incomes, and precarious or substandard housing. But few other refugees share the unique solidarity of the Achehnese community.
The people mingling at the Community Society today are among thousands of Achehnese who fled their home province in 2003. In May that year, after eleventh-hour negotiations over demands for local independence failed, some 50,000 Indonesian soldiers and police imposed martial law in Acheh, launching a large-scale crackdown on members or supporters of the separatist Free Acheh Movement, known in Indonesia as Gerakan Acheh Merdeka, or GAM.
Indonesian forces routinely singled out young Achehnese men on suspicion that they were among GAM's estimated 5,000 armed members or supporters. Suspects were beaten, arbitrarily detained, forced to disappear, or killed. If men failed to cooperate, the military went after their families.
Abdul Halim Andib describes his country at the time as a "war zone" where it soon became impossible to live.
He fled by boat across the busy Malacca Strait to nearby Malaysia. But the refuge it offered was scant. "There's no government," is how Andib puts it. What Malaysia's government lacks is a system to receive or protect asylum seekers.
Among the lucky ones, Andib found shelter in a refugee camp. Other Achehnese in Malaysia were less fortunate. They faced police extortion and extreme poverty. Some were even deported back to the violent conflict they had risked their lives to escape.
A Canadian welcome
Acknowledging the unbearable situation for Achehnese refugees in Malaysia, the federal government, at the time under Liberal Party of Canada political management, stepped in.
"Canadian Immigration supported us from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] in Malaysia," recalls Safrizal Dulysah. He and Andib both reached Vancouver in June 2004; they were 25.
"Usually, the men or the husbands were in refugee camps in Malaysia, so we came here first," Dulysah, now 34, adds. "Then, we supported our wives and some kids. They came here after that."
The Canadian federal government supported families fleeing Acheh as landed immigrants, not as refugees. They received permanent residency as soon as they arrived. As is the custom for other government-assisted refugees, they spent their first two weeks in Canada at the Immigrant Services Society of BC's Welcome House in downtown Vancouver.
"They gave single men $500 welfare for rent, but a family, maybe more," Dulysah recalls. "Enough for rent and food."
Armed with the barest essentials, the Achehnese worked steadily to rebuild their lives in Canada. They searched for jobs. They studied English and became fluent speakers. They rented what apartments they could afford to accommodate their growing families.
Nine years later, Dulysah is the father of three children and works as a finishing carpenter. He pays $1,100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Burnaby for his five-person family.
Their success, community members say, comes from the fact that they have each other. Early on, the men and women who fled Acheh's violent divisions took steps to keep connected and support each other, even when prohibitive housing costs forced them to live in far-flung spots across the Lower Mainland.
"As soon as we came here, we thought we might need to stay together, so we decided to rent a place," Andib says, explaining the origins of the East Vancouver gathering space. "Because we are Muslim, we needed a place to gather together."
Only a year after most had arrived, the group registered the Achehnese Canadian Community Society with the provincial government in 2005.
Approaching their tenth anniversary in Canada next year, the community has much to be proud of in addition to its modest meeting hall. All its members have learned English. They're employed and self-supporting. They don't make use of income assistance from the provincial government.
'They won't cry for help'
But the Achehnese community's record of steadfast mutual support of one another is exceptional.
"There's a popular myth that in newcomer communities, everybody takes care of everyone. I hear that all the time," says Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and an associate dean of York University's education faculty.
Behind the popular ideas that ethnic immigrant communities take care of themselves, he says, is the harsher reality that people of all backgrounds face setbacks, job loss, financial difficulty -- and struggle to keep a roof over their head.
"Newcomer homelessness is a very complicated and important issue," Gaetz says. "It's not all hugs. Issues around settlement, and the breakdowns that can happen: breakdowns with refugees, breakdowns in families, moving with family, reunification, things like that can happen."
A 2005 study for the National Secretariat on Homelessness, conducted by MOSAIC, a settlement services agency, and the UBC geography department, examined relative and absolute homelessness among immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants in Greater Vancouver. It found that newcomers' success in finding housing relies heavily on the social capital of ethnic or cultural communities that already reside here.
The youthful Achehnese community, determined to stick together, built their own social capital.
"Something that I really appreciate about the Achehnese community is the way that they come together, [to] make decisions as a community," says Byron Cruz, a Downtown Eastside healthcare worker who has been working with the Achehnese community since its members arrived in 2004.
But while it has unity on its side, the community still faces significant challenges, Cruz says. "Despite the fact they are not on social assistance, and they are working so hard, housing is an issue for them. For a hardworking person in the construction industry, they have a hard time paying the rent."
And not every refugee has a ready-made community of people from their home country to buffer their landing in Canada. "While established ethno-cultural communities may have the ability to 'take care of their own,'" MOSAIC found, "Other groups who lack extensive social networks, including recently arrived individuals and refugee claimants, may fall through the cracks."
Even for those with support, success is relative. "The extent of relative and absolute homelessness among immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants is less than would be expected given the income levels of these groups," the MOSAIC report reads. "This is not to say that the delineated groups are well housed."
Social networks may keep newcomers off the street, but the alternative for many is to live in crowded, often substandard homes, with family members double-bunking in living rooms in what small spaces they can afford.
Sherman Chan was the principal investigator on that 2005 report. In his view, refugees will continue to be poorly sheltered until people start speaking out. But the settlement services director of MOSAIC says that outcry won't come from refugee communities themselves, even those who are struggling. "They won't cry for help," Chan says.
"It's unlikely they will do anything big to voice their concerns or to really deal with the issues that they are suffering from," he says. "I think that's always the challenge, in terms of becoming more visible and voicing out the concerns, pushing the policy makers."
As Chan sees it, policy makers are "paying more attention to the aboriginal homelessness issue, the youth homelessness issue, seniors' homelessness issues, [and] mental health, because they are more visible.
"Many of the ethnic communities, they tend to accommodate themselves, couch-surfing, or they'll stay with somebody's family for a while and then move to another one, or they may be housing in a really overcrowded environment," Chan says. "So they are not coming out."
The Achehnese community is exceptional in that as well. Proud of its achievements to date, the group is eager to aim higher.
"When we started working, we got paid very low [sic]," says Dulysah. "We started from $10 without experience and without English." He improved his own circumstances slowly over time, forcing himself to study English in the evenings after work, finding new work through his community of friends.
But while everyone's found some sort of shelter in the private market, Achehnese families are scattered in various configurations across Burnaby, Surrey, and East Vancouver. Many struggle with affordability and inadequate space.
Andib, like Dulysah a finishing carpenter, makes $3,000 a month. He lives in Surrey with his wife and two children, sharing a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $850 -- just barely affordable by national standards that dictate shelter should consume no more than 30 per cent of one's income.
"Right now," Dulysah volunteers, "it's very hard to pay rent." He wants something better that he can rely on.
The same is true for others in the group. Once again, they've come together through the Achehnese Canadian Community Society, this time to draft a community "wish-list" for 2013. Exploring alternative housing possibilities is high on the list.
There are as yet no concrete plans for how to proceed, but Dulysah says some ideas have been floated already. "What we want," Dulysah says, "is a place for the community [to gather] and a co-op building or rent-to-own for life."
The dream is for Achehnese families to live in the same co-operative housing complex, or another such affordable, community-oriented space they co-own or rent to own. Ideally, there would be enough room for the kids as they grow up, as many Achehnese children are now double- or triple-bunking with siblings or parents in small apartments.
Most importantly, secure long-term, affordable housing would free the group's energies to pursue ambitions that extend beyond housing innovations. They want to build a social enterprise, for example, where those employed as carpenters donate their skills to the community at large.
With characteristic solidarity, the community's 2013 wish-list also includes doing more for parents, siblings and cousins left behind in Acheh. For the many who did not flee, a destructive tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004, added homelessness to the existing miseries of the troubled region.
Like many others, Andib's small budget for shelter and other household expenses in Canada is stretched further by the amounts he regularly sends back to family in Acheh province. "I'm really proud that we have come together," Andib says. He looks around at his friends, who nod. "We have close friendships, and we have stayed together."
It's a good bet the same spirit will find a way to secure affordable housing too.
Tomorrow: Teaching new refugees in Greater Victoria, who've fled violence and persecution in their home countries, to get 'ready to rent.'