People across British Columbia are signing up to welcome Syrian refugees into their homes.
Government-assisted refugees traditionally settle in five main cities in B.C. – Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby, New Westminster, and up to 10 per cent in Vancouver. But since the federal government announced plans to welcome 25,000 refugees into Canada, people all over the Lower Mainland are offering help.
“We’re getting housing invitations from Vancouver’s west side, Tsawwassen, Ladner, North Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Langley,” said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
ISS issued a call to action for local residents and, in less than two weeks, almost 800 housing offers came in. Metro Vancouverites are inviting Syrians to live in their basement suites or spare rooms.
“All of a sudden, this means that refugees could be destined to settle in non-traditional places. We have an opportunity to place them in non-traditional neighbourhoods and that’s only because of the willingness of families and individuals to come forward and open up their homes,” said Friesen.
B.C. residents cohabiting with Syrian refugees means faster integration
Friesen said having established residents living with the refugees helps build a sense of community and is an opportunity for Canadians to better understand what has happened in Syria. It gives them a chance to welcome a stranger and hear first-hand accounts of their experiences.
Vancouver’s deputy mayor agreed.
“In settlement cases, you want the refugees to be able to connect to the local culture as quickly as possible, and living in people’s houses has the added benefit of making them less isolated,” said Andrea Reimer.
Friesen also said that, contrary to public opinion polls, the calls and emails ISS receives are overwhelmingly positive. Housing invitations are coming from not just Metro Vancouver but throughout B.C., including Kelowna, Penticton, and Victoria. These invitations are being passed on to the immigrant-serving organizations in those cities.
Youth becoming more engaged in refugee crisis
Even high-school students in the Global Issues Club at Frank Hurt Secondary School in Surrey are getting involved. They collected donations at their school to support the ISS refugee fund and the Canadian Red Cross.
“We’re an inner-city school so we have refugees, new immigrants, and a very large indigenous community… a diversity of people who’ve been here a long time. So the students see the refugees coming as a good thing and want to make a positive contribution,” said Melanie Scheuer, the supervisor of the student-run club.
Club members went from class to class telling students about the crisis in Syria. They held bake sales, organized a Halloween fashion show with entry by donation, and engaged in a little friendly competition to see which class could collect the most donations. The $1,000 they raised was evenly split between ISS and the Red Cross.
“I think that Syria for today’s generation is what the Vietnamese boat people in the 80s were for [my] generation when 60,000 refugees came to Canada over a two-year period,” Friesen said.
Between 1979 and 1980, Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government resettled approximately 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos following the end of the Vietnam War.
“Many of us remember our parents being involved in sponsoring and welcoming the Vietnamese refugees, and that’s similar to what’s happening now with young people being engaged with the Syrian refugees. Frank Hurt Secondary is an example of that,” said Friesen.
Four hundred refugees are expected in B.C. by the end of the year and 1,500 by the end of February. Friesen estimates that at least 1,500 permanent housing offers from the public will be needed to assist the refugees.
“It’s great… everybody is coming together throughout B.C., coast to coast to coast, and saying ‘We’ve watched this on the television, we’ve read this in the news, we’ve listened to this on the radio for long enough,’” Friesen said. “It’s time to act.”