The head of B.C.’s refugee resettlement effort says the generosity of residents towards incoming Syrians is “overwhelming” and he’s relieved the federal government has set a more cautious pace for the transfers.
Chris Friesen now estimates 400 Syrian refugees will arrive in B.C. in December and expects another 1,500 in January and February, in line with the federal government’s revised goal of bringing in an additional 25,000 before March.
“Now we’ve got a month or so to catch our breath, thank goodness,” said Friesen, the director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., which is federally contracted to assist government-sponsored refugees.
He said the magnitude of the response in B.C. is stunning.
“This has become the great Canadian national project,” Friesen said.
“Syrians are for today’s generation what the Vietnamese boat people were to the baby boomers. In the decades to come, we will look back at 2015-2016 as an historic moment in Canadian history when Canadians embraced a humanitarian crisis and responded in untold ways.”
Offers of temporary and permanent housing, employment and myriad donations have been flooding in, from donors as diverse as inner city kindergarten classes and seniors homes to Jewish synagogues and Sikh businessmen.
An 18-unit apartment building in Vancouver’s West End that had been slated for demolition has been offered up by developer Ian Gillespie.
“He’s turned it over on his dime – fully furnished with telephones, computers – for up to the end of March so we can get through this crunch period,” Friesen said.
Refugees will stay in temporary accommodations like that for a couple of weeks, get oriented, find permanent housing and rotate out as new Syrians arrive.
The top priority now is finding the permanent homes, many of which are expected to be in more affordable Metro Vancouver cities such as Surrey and Coquitlam.
Indo-Canadian developer Daljit Thind, an immigrant himself, has offered several well-appointed permanent apartments on Kingsway in Vancouver at welfare rates, far below what they could fetch.
Friesen likens the operation underway to suddenly trying to host the Olympics with next to no notice.
“We’ve got over 3,500 volunteers. Close to 800 housing leads. A hundred and something employers wanting to offer first jobs in Canada,” he said.
“We’ve got grandmothers knitting toques and scarves and gloves,” Friesen said. “We had a seven-year-old who gave his $2 allowance. A 13-year-old who gave his birthday party money – instead of collecting gifts he basically took money from his friends and gave it to us. It’s unbelievable.”
The Immigrant Services Society has helped recruit volunteer, housing and job offers through its website (www.issbc.org) and it also takes financial donations to help fund private refugee sponsorships.
The B.C. Muslim Association is also organizing assistance and collecting donations through its website at www.thebcma.com.
About half of the initial 400 arrivals are expected to be privately sponsored and Friesen noted there is no cap on the number of those refugees – significantly more could be brought to B.C. over and above the expected share of government-sponsored refugees, depending on the number and capacity of B.C. sponsors.
Numerous religious groups – including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs – are gearing up to either directly sponsor refugees or otherwise assist them.
“It’s a proliferation of every faith, non-faith, businesses, law firms – it’s the whole gamut,” Friesen said.
A trickle of Syrian refugees have been arriving in B.C. already.
Eighteen families – 51 Syrians in total – have so far come to B.C. in 2015, all of them settling in either Surrey, Delta, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster or Coquitlam.
“The majority don’t speak English. They’re coming from larger urban centres. Some are survivors of torture,” Friesen said. “It’s a real mixed bag of careers. There are medical students, university students, families with young kids, plumbers, carpenters, accountants.”
Language training will be one of the biggest challenges for the mainly Arabic speakers.
Friesen expects part of the $670 million Ottawa has budgeted over four years to respond to the crisis to flow to B.C. to help reduce wait lists for English classes and daycare spaces.
Asked if he’s seen local examples of tensions from people worried about security risks, Friesen said he’s had a few negative phone calls, but called them a tiny minority.
He calls it a major reversal in public sentiment from years of many Canadians suspecting every refugee was a “welfare-cheating bogus queue-jumping illegal” to a near-universal desire to help.
“I’ve got self-inflicted bruises from constantly pinching myself and wondering ‘what planet am I on?'”
One change he still wants to see is an end to the federal policy of making incoming refugees repay loans – with interest – to cover their processing, medical checks and transportation to Canada.
Ottawa has already exempted the Syrian refugees from that requirement.
Advocates say it’s a significant hardship and undercuts efforts to help refugees successfully adapt to life in Canada because some may delay or forgo retraining to repay the loans.
“To now say Syrians don’t have the loan but all other refugees do makes no sense,” Friesen said. “It’s time to put the loan to bed. It does not align with the humanitarian objectives of this stream of immigration.”
First wave of Syrian refugees to be spread across 13 B.C. cities
Many of the Syrian refugees initially identified as destined for B.C. are expected to head to Vancouver or New Westminster.
Both cities are the currently listed destination for 52 Syrians that have now been screened overseas but have not yet been assigned flights to Canada, according to data released by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
But 11 other cities are listed, including 24 for Burnaby, 16 for Coquitlam, 15 for Victoria and between four and 10 for each of Delta, Duncan, Kelowna, Langley, Prince George, Richmond and Surrey.
Those counts are as of Nov. 19 and total just over 200 for B.C. as a whole.
Most of the refugees identified so far are privately sponsored.
ISS officials say the numbers are expected to rise dramatically in the days ahead as more prospective Syrian refugees are processed.