B.C. generosity to refugees ‘overwhelming’

'Historic moment' as first wave of 200 B.C. refugees to be spread across 13 cities

Chris Friesen is the director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. The agency is federally contracted to assist incoming government-sponsored refugees.

Chris Friesen is the director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. The agency is federally contracted to assist incoming government-sponsored refugees.

The head of B.C.’s refugee resettlement effort says the generosity of residents towards incoming Syrians is “overwhelming” and he’s relieved the federal government has set a more cautious pace for the transfers.

Chris Friesen now estimates 400 Syrian refugees will arrive in B.C. in December and expects another 1,500 in January and February, in line with the federal government’s revised goal of bringing in an additional 25,000 before March.

“Now we’ve got a month or so to catch our breath, thank goodness,” said Friesen, the director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., which is federally contracted to assist government-sponsored refugees.

He said the magnitude of the response in B.C. is stunning.

“This has become the great Canadian national project,” Friesen said.

“Syrians are for today’s generation what the Vietnamese boat people were to the baby boomers. In the decades to come, we will look back at 2015-2016 as an historic moment in Canadian history when Canadians embraced a humanitarian crisis and responded in untold ways.”

RELATED:Feds slow pace of Syrian refugee rescue to ‘do it right’ Q&A: How does private refugee sponsorship work?

Offers of temporary and permanent housing, employment and myriad donations have been flooding in, from donors as diverse as inner city kindergarten classes and seniors homes to Jewish synagogues and Sikh businessmen.

An 18-unit apartment building in Vancouver’s West End that had been slated for demolition has been offered up by developer Ian Gillespie.

“He’s turned it over on his dime – fully furnished with telephones, computers – for up to the end of March so we can get through this crunch period,” Friesen said.

Refugees will stay in temporary accommodations like that for a couple of weeks, get oriented, find permanent housing and rotate out as new Syrians arrive.

The top priority now is finding the permanent homes, many of which are expected to be in more affordable Metro Vancouver cities such as Surrey and Coquitlam.

Indo-Canadian developer Daljit Thind, an immigrant himself, has offered several well-appointed permanent apartments on Kingsway in Vancouver at welfare rates, far below what they could fetch.

Friesen likens the operation underway to suddenly trying to host the Olympics with next to no notice.

“We’ve got over 3,500 volunteers. Close to 800 housing leads. A hundred and something employers wanting to offer first jobs in Canada,” he said.

“We’ve got grandmothers knitting toques and scarves and gloves,” Friesen said. “We had a seven-year-old who gave his $2 allowance. A 13-year-old who gave his birthday party money – instead of collecting gifts he basically took money from his friends and gave it to us. It’s unbelievable.”

The Immigrant Services Society has helped recruit volunteer, housing and job offers through its website (www.issbc.org) and it also takes financial donations to help fund private refugee sponsorships.

The B.C. Muslim Association is also organizing assistance and collecting donations through its website at www.thebcma.com.

Material donations are welcomed by Eversafe Ranch Outreach Society in Surrey, Langley and Delta (eversaferanch.ca) and the Muslim Food Bank (muslimfoodbank.com).

About half of the initial 400 arrivals are expected to be privately sponsored and Friesen noted there is no cap on the number of those refugees – significantly more could be brought to B.C. over and above the expected share of government-sponsored refugees, depending on the number and capacity of B.C. sponsors.

Numerous religious groups – including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs – are gearing up to either directly sponsor refugees or otherwise assist them.

“It’s a proliferation of every faith, non-faith, businesses, law firms – it’s the whole gamut,” Friesen said.

A trickle of Syrian refugees have been arriving in B.C. already.

Eighteen families – 51 Syrians in total – have so far come to B.C. in 2015, all of them settling in either Surrey, Delta, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster or Coquitlam.

“The majority don’t speak English. They’re coming from larger urban centres. Some are survivors of torture,” Friesen said. “It’s a real mixed bag of careers. There are medical students, university students, families with young kids, plumbers, carpenters, accountants.”

Language training will be one of the biggest challenges for the mainly Arabic speakers.

Friesen expects part of the $670 million Ottawa has budgeted over four years to respond to the crisis to flow to B.C. to help reduce wait lists for English classes and daycare spaces.

Asked if he’s seen local examples of tensions from people worried about security risks, Friesen said he’s had a few negative phone calls, but called them a tiny minority.

He calls it a major reversal in public sentiment from years of many Canadians suspecting every refugee was a “welfare-cheating bogus queue-jumping illegal” to a near-universal desire to help.

“I’ve got self-inflicted bruises from constantly pinching myself and wondering ‘what planet am I on?'”

One change he still wants to see is an end to the federal policy of making incoming refugees repay loans – with interest – to cover their processing, medical checks and transportation to Canada.

Ottawa has already exempted the Syrian refugees from that requirement.

Advocates say it’s a significant hardship and undercuts efforts to help refugees successfully adapt to life in Canada because some may delay or forgo retraining to repay the loans.

“To now say Syrians don’t have the loan but all other refugees do makes no sense,” Friesen said. “It’s time to put the loan to bed. It does not align with the humanitarian objectives of this stream of immigration.”

Refugee countCreate column charts

First wave of Syrian refugees to be spread across 13 B.C. cities

Many of the Syrian refugees initially identified as destined for B.C. are expected to head to Vancouver or New Westminster.

Both cities are the currently listed destination for 52 Syrians that have now been screened overseas but have not yet been assigned flights to Canada, according to data released by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

But 11 other cities are listed, including 24 for Burnaby, 16 for Coquitlam, 15 for Victoria and between four and 10 for each of Delta, Duncan, Kelowna, Langley, Prince George, Richmond and Surrey.

Those counts are as of Nov. 19 and total just over 200 for B.C. as a whole.

Most of the refugees identified so far are privately sponsored.

ISS officials say the numbers are expected to rise dramatically in the days ahead as more prospective Syrian refugees are processed.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Former Oak Bay High Grade 12 student Brandon Kip plays the $100,000 Steinway piano in the Dave Dunnet Theatre. (Black Press Media file photo)
Oak Bay High Alumni Association passes torch to new president

The association has given back more than $70,000 in its 16 years

This photo courtesy of Leanne Grover shows the immediate aftermath of the fire at 7987 Galbraith Cres. that caused extensive damage and displaced six residents. (Leanne Grover/Submitted)
Residents of a Central Saanich duplex ‘fortunate’ to escape Sunday morning fire

Damage to the duplex extensive with one resident said to be ‘catatonic’ after escaping building

A speaker series, hosted by the Citizens Environment Network in Colwood, is aiming to help the community celebrate Earth Month. (Photo by Annacapictures/Pixabay)
Colwood speaker series celebrates Earth Month

Electric cars, community gardens, water systems and more to be highlighted in virtual webinars

Kiana Chamberland was last seen April 15 in Esquimalt. (Victoria Police Department)
MISSING: Kiana Chamberland, considered at high risk

The 24-year-old was last seen April 15th in Esquimalt

Six people are said to have escaped injury and are currently receiving assistance after an early Sunday morning fire in Central Saanich displaced them. (Central Saanich Fire Department/Twitter)
Six people escape early Sunday morning fire in Central Saanich unharmed

Cause of the fire on Galbraith Close remains under investigation

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

Pat Kauwell, a semi-retired construction manager, lives in his fifth-wheel trailer on Maxey Road because that’s what he can afford on his pension, but a Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw prohibits using RVs as permanent dwellings, leaving Kauwell and others like him with few affordable housing options. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Rules against RV living hard on Island residents caught in housing crunch

Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw forcing pensioner to move RV he calls home off private farm land

(Black Press file photo).
Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. finance minister to table historic pandemic-challenged deficit budget

Budget aims to take care of people during pandemic while preparing for post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Lord Tweedsmuir’s Tremmel States-Jones jumps a player and the goal line to score a touchdown against the Kelowna Owls in 2019. The face of high school football, along with a majority of other high school sports, could significantly change if a new governance proposal is passed at the B.C. School Sports AGM May 1. (Malin Jordan)
Power struggle: New governance model proposed for B.C. high school sports

Most commissions are against the new model, but B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board is in favour

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

Most Read