Kelowna, Kamloops ready for Syrian refugees, community sponsors say

November 17, 2015

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

Community groups in B.C. cities such as Kelowna and Kamloops say they are ready to take in Syrian newcomers, but the man in charge of settling the province’s government-assisted refugees says any push to send too many new arrivals outside Metro Vancouver could backfire.

There is already a Syrian family living in Kelowna and another in Summerland, said Marilyn Perry, chair of the Central Okanagan Refugee Committee, based out of Kelowna’s First United Church. The group is applying to sponsor a second family.

“Kelowna is a good spot because we have a mosque here, and 90 per cent of the people in Syria are Muslims,” Perry said. “We have good ESL here. The folks at the mosque, because their worship is in Arabic, they can provide us with translators and they’ve done that, and that’s been a good connection in many different ways.”

Perry said she knows of groups in Vernon, Armstrong and Salmon Arm who are also in the process of sponsoring Syrian refugees. A Catholic Church in Kelowna is hoping to bring in 12 families, she added.

Jobs Tourism and Skills Training Minister Shirley Bond, who is the provincial minister responsible for refugees, said in a statement Tuesday the B.C. government would like Ottawa to consider settling some refugees outside the Lower Mainland, where housing is more affordable and there are more jobs available.

But Chris Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said that some refugees might not settle so easily in small towns. He said this has worked in the case of privately sponsored refugees, who are supported in whole or in part by a church or community group. Such groups will typically choose the refugees they want to sponsor by name and often it will be members of the same family.

This is true in the case of Perry’s group, as the second family they have applied to sponsor is related to the family already there.

“Most of private-sponsored refugees are named cases through family reunification,” Friesen explained. “You’ve got the built-in support already. They’re just being reunited with their families.”

Government-assisted refugees, by contrast, are selected by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, on the basis of vulnerability.

“This is the single mothers, the survivors of torture, the (people who’ve spent) five years in a refugee camp,” Friesen said. “When we talk about arbitrary announcements about destining outside the Lower Mainland, this requires a massive system discussion because … sure you can find an interpreter from the mosque, or whatever. But what about the school system … are elementary schools prepared to deal with children of refugee backgrounds? Is Interior Health prepared to deal with trauma cases or specialized medical cases?”

Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum has said the 25,000 Syrians arriving in Canada by the end of the year will be a mix of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees. It is not known what the ratio will be, but the emphasis is expected to be on the former.

In September, Premier Christy Clark announced that B.C. would create a $1-million refugee readiness fund aimed at building capacity to settle refugees outside Metro Vancouver, which has historically been home to the vast majority.

Asked whether that fund has been used to help any communities to date, Bond said the province is waiting for details from Ottawa on how many Syrians will be coming to B.C. before they commit funds to specific initiatives. The ministry has been consulting immigrant groups throughout the province for the last two months, Bond said.

Read more