From policy to practice: resettlement journeys of Syrian refugees

UBC Public Scholars Award recipient Bronwyn Bragg worked with immigrant and refugee communities as a community-based researcher in Calgary before returning to school to complete her PhD in human geography. Her current research findings may shed light on how immigration policy can affect the successful resettlement of Syrian refugees in the Lower Mainland.

Through her work, Bragg saw firsthand the impact that Canadian immigration policy has on the everyday lives of community members. She was employed during a time of extensive change to the immigration system, when new policy decisions regarding family reunification and language requirements for economic immigrants were being made under the Conservative government.

“I decided to go back to school to explore this intersection, between policy and community, at a deeper level as well as to think about ways that research can lead to better policy decisions,” says Bragg.

The research

Bragg’s research is based on a four-square block ‘mini enclave’ of Syrian refugees in East Calgary. The neighbourhood, known by residents as ‘Little Syria,’ is home to 35 Syrian families who resettled in Canada in 2015 and 2016. Through interviews and participant observation, Bragg has researched how geography affects settlement, sense of belonging and the reshaping of neighbourhood life.

Bronwyn Bragg, PhD candidate in human geography | Photo courtesy of Bronwyn Bragg

Despite struggling with poverty and marginalization, Bragg says that Little Syria shows its resilience in social inclusion initiatives and resident-led community development projects.

According to Bragg, understanding how Syrian families experience settlement starts with researching the local context in which they live. Bragg has communicated with community stakeholders and service providers, and she emphasizes the importance of getting away from the mindset that there is a separate sector for immigrant services.

“What I have observed in my research is that two to three years after their arrival in Canada, most Syrian women are not accessing services specific to immigrants/refugees,” she says.

Instead, Bragg has observed that they are participating with mainstream resources, such as their children’s schools and the medical system. She encourages municipalities and provincial governments to think of services, including schools, hospitals, social workers and the police as also being immigrant serving.

“I think it is important that we think about how these ‘mainstream’ services are prepared to work with newcomer/refugee populations,” says Bragg.

Bridging policy and practice

Bragg contends that Canadian immigrants and refugees are affected by immigration policy everyday. For example, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Canadian Permanent Residents to sponsor family members, due to factors such as who ‘counts’ as a family member, caps on how many family members can be admitted each year, and income requirements for families wanting to sponsor a relative. The impact of this policy is especially felt by immigrant women who depend on the support of extended family members.

“This is a core priority for the Syrian families in my study and yet the ability to sponsor relatives is out of reach for most of them,” says Bragg.

Bragg’s research faces the challenge of making the bridge between policy and practice at the community level. She proposes two ways of approaching policy change. First, Bragg hopes that community-engaged research like her own will be able to inform policy decisions. Second, she believes that service providers, such as schools and hospitals, play a key role in policy implementation.

“I hope to use my research to support better implementation of policy and service delivery at the ground level,” Bragg says.

The successful resettlement journey

According to Bragg, there is no singular definition of a successful resettlement journey.

“What Canadians want for Syrian refugees may be different than what Syrian refugees want for themselves,” she says.

As Bragg explains, the reality of the ongoing conflict in Syria, and family members that still live in Syria, or in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, make it unfeasible for Syrian refugees to lose ties to their homeland. She also warns of overburdening refugee families with preset expectations regarding employment, language skills and how they will lead their lives in Canada.

“Because of the overwhelming level of interest and involvement by Canadians in the Syrian initiative, I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that this process isn’t actually about us,” she says.

For more information about Bronwyn Bragg, visit