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A Syrian family calls this parking lot in Beirut home. Photo credit L. Ritson.

UBC students work to bring Syrian refugee family to Canada from Beirut parking lot

A diverse group of University of British Columbia students is working to raise $72,000 to bring a Syrian refugee family from Beirut to…

By Curtis Rowland , in City , on December 2, 2015

A Syrian family calls this parking lot in Beirut home. Photo credit L. Ritson.
A Syrian family calls this parking lot in Beirut home. Photo: L. Ritson

A diverse group of University of British Columbia students is working to raise $72,000 to bring a Syrian refugee family from Beirut to Vancouver.

UBC Refugee Relief, a group of more than 25 students, plans to privately sponsor the family of eight in partnership with a group of private citizens and an Anglican Church group from Vancouver. The Syrian family has lived in a makeshift canvas tent on a plot next to a produce stand since 2011. The family comes from a rural background and consists of three brothers, one sister, spouses to three of them, and the two-year-old child of one of the couples. The majority of the group is in their 20s and early 30s.

Jory Smallenberg had been feeling emotionally burdened and unable to focus on her studies in light of the events occurring in Syria. 

“Everyone is nodding their head that this is an issue, but nobody knows how to practically help. That was the basis of the movement – to learn how to help in practical terms.”

Smallenberg found a way to help when she met Katriina O’Kane, whose previous philanthropic endeavours include a seven-week volunteer stint in Nepal teaching children and producing documentaries focusing on Canada’s North.

O’Kane was looking to meet people in her new home of Vancouver. She also felt like she was just like anyone else who wanted to help and started thinking about sponsoring a refugee family in February.

“I did quite a bit of research to understand the feasibility [of privately sponsoring a family] and honestly it didn’t seem that complicated.”

Katriina O’Kane, a geography graduate student, founded UBC Refugee Relief.
Katriina O’Kane is a geography graduate student and member of UBC Refugee Relief.

In October, she attended a talk by UBC geography professor Dan Hiebert that focused on why people fled, where they fled to and the impact of the massive human movement. O’Kane and Smallenberg used Hiebert’s talk as an opportunity to reach out to like-minded students. They brought up the idea of private sponsorship.

Their plea reached Danielle Black, a geological engineering student, Dina Shouhdy, studying psychology and political science and Lili Wentworth, in sociology and French, among others.

The group recruited additional help at a talk held by the Vancouver immigrant-support group MOSAIC on privately sponsoring Syrian refugees.

O’Kane suggests that the university-student-based group benefits from youthful passion, a range of specialties, and an ability to explore new ideas and projects that might not be feasible for other groups. Ryerson University’s Lifeline Syria Challenge is also working to raise funds for private sponsorship by mobilizing students, faculty and volunteers from the Greater Toronto area.

UBC Refugee Relief has focused on fundraising while the Syrian family works through the application process required by the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Canada Border Services Agency.

To date, approximately $41,000 of the $72,000 has already been raised by a group of private citizens and an Anglican Church organization that have partnered with UBC Refugee Relief.

The students plan to hold fundraising events around the UBC campus in January and February, including a coffee house, cultural events offering Middle Eastern food and Arabic language lessons, and a charity run. Members are also setting up a silent auction in West Point Grey to attract support from affluent areas of Vancouver.

The money will be used for housing, transportation, medical care, food and other necessities. The students plan to rent a large house in Vancouver to allow the family to stay together but have their own private spaces. The family members will receive permanent resident status if their application is accepted.

The diverse group ranges from engineering students to sociology majors.
The diverse group ranges from engineering students to sociology majors.

UBC Refugee Relief aims to go beyond raising funds to help with things locals take for granted, like setting up a bank account. The students also plan to provide a welcoming community to the Syrian family when they arrive, but acknowledge that they can’t do everything.

They’ll rely on MOSAIC, the immigrant-support group offers English training free of charge, in addition to a range of cultural, integration and counselling support for refugees entering Canada.

MOSAIC’s manager of community outreach and advocacy programs, Saleem Spindari, said that despite the fact that only 47 Syrian refugees have been settled in B.C. from January to October, MOSAIC has committed to helping 1,000 more following the Liberal government’s pledge to bring in 25,000 refugees by February.

The family living in the Beirut parking lot is not alone in their situation – there are an estimated 4.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide. O’Kane added that if the family’s application is not accepted, the UBC student group will try again with another family.

O’Kane said that the attacks in Paris have not deterred the group. “I can hope that Canada and Canadians will stay open and welcoming and kind hearted and understanding that [everywhere], everyone is just people.”

*The December 2 iteration of this article was updated to correct the attribution of the funds raised to date and the founding members of UBC Refugee Relief.