South Okanagan communities step up for Syrian refugees

South Okanagan residents are getting prepared to take refugees into their communities.

Tahira Sayeed

While the future of Syrian refugees looking to relocate to Canada is currently in the hands of the federal government, South Okanagan residents are getting prepared to take refugees into their communities.

The eight members of the Naramata Community Refugee Support Initiative (NCRSI) had their second planning meeting on Nov. 26 and have recently secured housing from the Naramata Centre. The Centre’s board voted last weekend to provide spaces for four families.

It was an article published on mynaramata.com by Leeanne Nash in September that initially suggested the Naramata Centre could be used to help in the humanitarian crisis, which got the initiative underway.

“We’re local people with varied backgrounds who are most interested in planning to be well prepared in advance should we be allocated refugees here in the South Okanagan,” said Laura Gray, a retired nurse living in Naramata and media spokesperson for NCRSI.

Gray got involved with the initiative because she said “I’m retired and I have the time to help.”

The details of relocating refugees are hinging on the actions of the Liberal government in Ottawa, but the NCRSI is going to be ready when word comes from Parliament Hill.

“What we do know that is definite is the Naramata Centre board has graciously offered housing for four small families, for a family of four,” Gray said.

Two fully furnished units of temporary housing have been offered up by the Naramata Centre which would house refugees for four to six months.

“Once that got determined we decided to prepare ourselves in advance, even though it is not a definite thing, that we will receive refugees here in this location,” Gray said.

She said the initiative would like to be there to help other groups that may need to relocate to Canada.

“We want to create a template, shall we say, of support services in Naramata, which is totally awesome, what else can I say,” Gray said. “What we are now looking at is structuring our group so we are going to work interdependently with existing agencies.”

One of those agencies includes South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS) which will help with the daunting task of logistics including housing, schooling for children and the many other needs of refugee families coming to Canada.

Tahira Sayeed, program manager for SOICS, is helping with settlement plans, which are needed by both privately sponsored and government sponsored refugees. The settlement plans include language classes, employment services, community connections and paperwork with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The next step after that is connecting refugees with a Social Insurance Number and medical assistance.

There is a tentative date for a town hall-style meeting for Naramata residents which is aiming to be held on Dec. 3. The confirmation of when and where the meeting will take place will be posted on mynarmata.com. Part of the meeting will be to dispel misinformation regarding refugees and to ensure everyone is properly informed of what will be involved.

“There are going to be some naysayers. We expect some people with a lot of questions and some concerns. With this upcoming meeting we want to address that. We want to provide as much information as we can to help people feel comfortable and informed,” Gray said.

The initiative will also be looking for fundraising efforts going forward. Summerland, the first Okanagan community to accept Syrian refugees who came to B.C. last year through efforts with the United Church, is also looking at what it would take to get involved.

A meeting to discuss the sponsorship and support of refugees in Summerland will take place in the meeting room at the Public Library in Summerland Dec. 2.

The meeting will discuss the process for sponsoring refugees and how to offer assistance for those interested. The possibility of setting up a community sponsorship committee will also be discussed and everyone is welcome to attend.

The federal government expects 10,000 refugees to come through private sponsorship, through any group of five people. The Catholic community in Summerland and Penticton is aiming to bring one family through a private sponsorship.

The other 15,000 refugees will come through government assisted sponsorship.

The Summerland meeting will also help those interested in privately sponsoring refugees by outlining the process and what is involved. The other part of the meeting will revolve around the community of Summerland’s interest in applying to be a community which will help government assisted refugees as well.

Summerland Coun. Doug Holmes talked to the Mayor Keith Hobbs of Thunder Bay, Ont. who recently passed a motion to bring in 25 families, 100 refugees.

“I contacted and asked ‘how are you going to do that?’ I was curious to know. What it comes down to really is that Thunder Bay doesn’t have the same housing issues we have,” Holmes said.

He hopes residents will come to the meeting with ideas, questions and concerns and that the meeting will help hash out the obstacles in the way of bringing families to Summerland.

“I don’t know what our capacity is. We’re just little Summerland and there is four million Syrian refugees out there, but if we can do our part let’s do it.”

 

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