Donating to grassroots organization is the best way to help Syrian refugees

September 9, 2015

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun

Vancouver residents who want to help Syrian refugees would do the most good by donating to one of the organizations operating on the ground in the Middle East, a director of a local immigrant services society told a packed public forum at Vancouver City Hall Tuesday night.

The United Nations Refugee Agency is significantly stretched for items such as tents, medical supplies, food and clothing going into the winter for the millions of Syrian refugees pouring into neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Jordan, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. These include groups such as the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the Canadian Red Cross.

More than 200 people crowded into a large room at Vancouver city hall as well as an overflow room to hear from Friesen, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Eyob Naizghi of the immigrant services agency MOSAIC about the nature of Canada’s response to the refugee crisis and what individual Vancouver residents could do.

Friesen also recommended donating to one of the local agencies that helps refugees settle in B.C., or alternatively, work with one of the faith-based groups that has experience navigating the complex system associated with privately sponsoring refugees from Syria. Directly sponsoring a refugee costs about $20,000 and the sponsor is responsible for the refugee’s settlement and well-being for the first 12 months they are in Canada.

Robertson also unveiled a resolution calling on the federal government to commit to directly sponsoring 20,000 refugees a year by the year 2020. Last year, 7,573 government assisted refugees and 4,560 privately sponsored refugees were admitted as permanent residents, Citizenship and Immigration Canada figures show. This year there are likely to be about 6,900 government assisted refugees, Friesen said. About 800 per year come to B.C., he added.

The council motion also asks staff to come back with recommendations on how the city can better assist refugees.

Asked how much influence cities have over immigration — an area of federal jurisdiction — Robertson noted that it is Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal that absorb the majority of the country’s refugees.

“We’re on the front lines dealing with this,” he said, adding that the city contributed $4.4 million to the new Welcome House, which will be the first home for all government-assisted refugees to B.C. It will open at 12th and Victoria in June 2016. The city has also taken steps to make it safer for those who live in the city without immigration status to access some city services without being reported to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Earlier Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark announced a $1-million “readiness fund” to help refugees from war-torn Syria settle in B.C.

The one-time investment will provide trauma counselling, assist professional associations to recognize foreign credentials, support job placement programs and help private sponsors navigate the refugee-sponsorship process.

Clark emphasized that it wasn’t British Columbia’s job to decide refugee admission numbers.

“That’s (Ottawa’s) job,” she said. “Our job is to make sure we’re ready.”

Clark’s eyes brimmed with tears as she spoke about the death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body on a Mediterranean beach was captured in a photo that sparked grief around the world.

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