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It looks like an ordinary hotel from the outside, but walk into the lobby and something feels different.

Gone are business travellers and tourists. Now the clientele here is exclusively made up of refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. Two women in hijabs sit behind what used to be the hotel’s reception desk. The busy lobby is filled with quiet conversations in languages like Pashto and Dari.

Nobody is going anywhere in a hurry.

This is one of two hotels in Calgary that are now filled with government-sponsored refugees — some stuck as the tight rental market makes it tough to secure private accommodation and move on.

They’re priced out, says Afghan refugee Fatima Tabish, who invited CBC Calgary to visit her temporary community at the hotel just off Macleod Trail.

The federal government covers rent for the first year while refugees find their feet and secure a job. But Tabish is finding the $1,200 allowance just isn’t enough in the current rental market.

“Life is so nice in Canada, especially in Calgary. People are so good, so kind, but the challenge is the rent. It’s expensive,” said Tabish, eating lunch in the sunshine outside the hotel.

“We are looking for homes, but the big problem is the rents are going up, higher and higher. Everything is so expensive.”

A major population boom

According to the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), 5,400 Afghan refugees arrived in Calgary between September 2021 and August 2022, with about a third planning to stay in this city. Another roughly 1,500 government-sponsored refugees came from other countries in the past year.

And there are other demands on this city’s rental housing stock.

CCIS says roughly 10,000 Ukranians moved to Calgary and the surrounding communities since that country was invaded by Russian.

And for internal migration — data from Statistics Canada shows a net in-migration to Alberta of nearly 10,000 people from other parts of Canada in just the second quarter of the year. That’s the biggest population boom in years, and it’s mostly of people from Ontario.

Tabish shared her story sitting in the parking lot just outside the packed hotel. Every few minutes, the CTrain whizzed by on the tracks nearby and a young boy on a bike rode slow circles around an old hockey net.

Sidewalk chalk scrawlings and colourful drawings along the side of the hotel tell of the kids who also call this place home.

Tabish arrived alone in Calgary from Kabul via Pakistan in April — one of 40,000 Afghans thrown a lifeline from the Canadian federal government as the Taliban regained power there, putting many of its citizens in danger.

She has already spent five months in two hotels that have been taken over exclusively by refugees, paid for by the federal government and run by local settlement organizations. In this case, it’s the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

I have lots of friends here now, from Afghanistan, from Africa, Syria — lots of friends.​​​​​– Fatima Tabish

In many ways, it’s good.

“I have lots of friends here now, from Afghanistan, from Africa, Syria — lots of friends,” she said with a smile. “There is no discrimination in here, of race, religion, languages. I like it here.”

They eat together and build relationships in the hotel’s busy restaurant, where they’re provided with daily meals. She says they also chat on WhatsApp when they are in their rooms.

But the hotel isn’t the end of their journey.

Tabish says refugees need to find landlords who’ll take them on, while also relying on the government to make monthly payments to them on time and consistently so they can pay their rent without any issues.

Searching for work

She has a business administration degree and was a teacher back home. She says landing a good paying job is the only real solution to finding a home and making the rent work. And she says she’ll take any job to get started again.

“In the hotel, we have been able to get help with our work progress, our PR cards, SIN numbers and RAP (Resettlement Assistance Program) packages,” she said. “The staff are so good here. We have social workers and case workers helping us with our CVs and with the government paperwork, and to find employment.”

“After one year we have to find our own job. We are anxious, a little bit anxious, that we need a job when our salary won’t come from the government.”

The government’s program also provides refugees with financial support, including startup allowances, monthly income support, a transportation allowance and a communication allowance for Internet access.

No affordable housing available

Housing is the biggest challenge across the country for refugees and immigrants, says Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of CCIS. They’ve seen a surge in new refugee arrivals after two quiet years.

“We are partnering with the Habitat for Humanity program to try to find people with houses that have extra bedrooms who are willing to rent them out. We are trying different approaches,” said Birjandian.

But the hotels could be used for another year at least.

Other settlement agencies in Calgary say the city has simply run out of affordable housing for anyone.

“With inflation, with a very small number of vacancies, people on fixed incomes are finding it really difficult to find affordable housing, and there’s a lot of things we can and should be doing around advocacy around that,” said Anila Lee Yuen, CEO of the Centre For Newcomers.

As well, people escaping Ukraine are coming as temporary residents rather than refugees. They’re searching for a place to live without the government-funded hotel option available. Lee Yuen says she’s never seen this many temporary residents coming to the city without much consideration of where they’ll be accommodated ahead of time.

“Typically when we have temporary residents coming, they would be temporary foreign workers so they already have employment and their accommodation is already worked out,” she said.

Fatima Tabish says while she waits to see what’s next, she keeps busy volunteering as an interpreter and helping other refugees make progress in their new lives here.

“We all want to stay here for the long term. We like Calgary.”


Story by: CBC News