It was an overall warm response from the community in Naramata as the group aiming to house Syrian refugees at the Naramata Centre held their first information session.
Nearly 80 people packed into the session held by the recently formed Naramata Community Syrian Refugee Initiative (NCSRI) at the Naramata Centre Chapel on Dec. 8.
The meeting laid out the preliminary plans to house four Syrian refugee families at the Naramata Centre offered up by the United Church last week.
“I thought it was a really productive meeting,”said Laura Gray, media spokesperson for the NCSRI. “We think they left there feeling informed that it’s not a definite thing, so we’re preparing for the possibility of refugees and we are creating a working framework.”
Privately sponsored refugees have already arrived in the Okanagan, including one family that arrived at the Kelowna Airport this week who will be residing in Oliver and the federal government has committed to bringing 25,000 refugees by the end of February.
The group is putting on a collaborative effort working with South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS). Tahira Saeed, program manager at SOICS, was on hand to provide information about the services they provide helping immigrants relocating to the South Okanagan including creating community connections and helping with English language classes.
NCSRI is planning on working with the SOICS network should refugees come to Naramata.
“We want to supplement what they have using our volunteers here, not duplicating but supplementing,” Gray said.
Gray said the displacement of Syrians due the country’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.
Around 800 refugees are expected in the Southern Mainland, around 400 will go to the area surrounding Surrey, with 400 more distributing throughout smaller communities, Gray said.
Naramata resident Ron Saunders said there is a “huge concern” about refugees and immigrants coming from the Middle East, noting those killed in the San Bernardino shooting in the U.S. and the attacks in Paris.
“I don’t think it means a lot that should cause us concern, but I think we have to think about the context of the conditions these people are coming from,” Saunders said. “Do we have a real good understanding about the social context, psychological context, religious context that these people are coming into the community with?” Saunders said.
Rene Mehrer, who is on the NCSRI board, was backpacking in Syria a few years ago with her sister, and has previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey.
“It was probably one of the most welcoming countries I’ve ever been to (Syria) and I’ve been to over 30,” Mehrer said. “In Istanbul, I have friends in my social group who are Syrian refugees. One is a lawyer, teachers and they are volunteering in Istanbul to educate those kids stuck in those refugee camps.”
“There are always crazy people everywhere, there are Christian people who are crazy. It’s very difficult to lump them all together,” Mehrer said.
Others shared their support, admiration and willingness to help the effort and some shared stories of their families coming to Canada as immigrants, or coming as immigrants themselves.
“I wasn’t airing concerns other than a suggestion to the wonderful people that are putting this on to do it with their eyes wide open,” Saunders said after the meeting. “And I’m so glad that Rene is a part of this group because she’s so well-traveled and she’s been to Syria.”
He said many immigrants and refugees coming from the Middle East are undocumented.
“I think people would be naive to expect that it’s an easy task to take responsibility of people who have come from this horrifically war-torn area of the world and that it’s going to be a cake walk,” Saunders said.
“It’s not going to be a cakewalk,” Mehrer said. “That’s why we have SOICS.”
While there is no official timeline for when government-sponsored refugees are arriving, or where they will go, NCSRI will have the pieces in place when the time comes.
“We need to plan now and start grouping people that want to help with long-term housing, settling refugees in, future employment, supports for learning English,” Gray said.
There are many roles that will be needed should Naramata receive refugees, and the amount of volunteers prepared to help is a consideration the government takes into account when deciding which communities will be allocated refugees. Volunteering can be as simple as assisting refugees to feel welcome in the community.
“So it can be a good experience, a positive experience for people who have been through incredible stress,” Gray said.
The organization is “on hold” Gray said, but they continue to work to ensure they are prepared in the event refugees are to arrive.
“We need these pieces in place in advance because we could hear at anytime, presumably January,” Gray said.
The organization is not ready to take donations of items like food and clothing just yet, as there is no guarantee refugees will be coming to Naramata.
Volunteers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.