Jean McRae is beginning to feel a little frustrated.
As thousands of Syrian refugees begin making their way to Canada, so far all she knows is that Victoria will receive 10 people who’ve been sponsored through private individuals or groups.
Working as the director of the Inter-Cultural Association of (ICA) Victoria, McRae is anxious to hear when and if the city will receive any government-assisted refugees so staff can have a concrete plan. It’s a question she gets asked on a daily basis and one she’d like to have an answer for soon.
“I would like to be able to give you an answer,” she said. “But we won’t know of arrivals until basically once the approval is done, the transportation is arranged and we just get a notice. It can be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few days.”
If the city does receive government-assisted refugees — who often have no family here and are selected on the basis of vulnerability — McRae figures they won’t be arriving until the new year. But when and if they do come, McRae and her staff will be ready to help them settle into their new life in Canada — a process that isn’t always easy.
According to McRae, language is one of the biggest hurdles refugees have to overcome, depending on their education back home. Some have a low literacy rate and dropped out of school while others have medical degrees, but have never worked in an English speaking country.
Adjusting to a culture that’s completely foreign is also a huge challenge. That’s where the association’s settlement workers enter the picture to explain what’s going on.
“We often see in the beginning they are fairly optimistic and they go through an adjustment where reality sets in and it’s very tough,” said McRae. “A lot of what we do is kind of normalizing that for people, helping understand that just because you are down about it right now doesn’t mean that’s going to last forever.”
Victoria hasn’t had a lot of refugees in recent years, noted McRae, but the association typically averages between 20 to 50 people a year. Its English program has more than 400 people in class each day and the settlement program has helped more than 1,000 people.
McRae is still surprised by the high volume of members from the community wanting to help refugees in any way possible.
For Rev. Bruce Bryant-Scott of St. Matthias Anglican Church, the response from the community has been overwhelming.
“Hundreds of people have come forward and we’re working with them. There’s been almost no trouble raising the money,” he said, noting the number of refugees that are supposed to come to B.C. is well within the normal variance of the number of immigrants the province typically sees each year.
“I sometimes get the feeling that people are running around, thinking that this is going to result in huge stresses upon our communities. We’re talking about several dozen individuals coming to Greater Victoria over the next 12 or 18 months. I think we can handle that…I’d be surprised if the average Victorian really even notices these people coming in.”
Like the ICA, the Anglican Diocese of B.C. is a sponsorship agreement holder, meaning it has signed sponsorship agreements with the federal government to help refugees settle in Canada.
Bryant-Scott receives emails from overseas refugees requesting help on a daily basis, but the focus has been on local refugees wanting to reunite with their family.
The church is currently involved with two settlements on the Island — one Afghan family in Victoria and another Syrian family in Ladysmith, for a total of nine people. Another six applications have been submitted to government officials (10 of which are Syrian, nine from the Horn of Africa and two Iraqi) and five more are being prepared for 24 people (18 Syrians and five Iraqis).
Constituent groups — composed of at least five Canadian adults that are eligible to sponsor one or more refugees — are also growing throughout the region and continue to receive tremendous support.
One of those groups is the Fairfield Refugee Sponsorship. The group of 16 citizens recently partnered with the ICA to bring a family of five to Victoria and had a goal of raising $55,000 to cover basic living and medical expenses plus flights.
Through numerous fundraisers, the group has since surpassed that goal to reach $75,000, so they’ve decided to sponsor a second family. A garden level apartment has also been donated for the first family, along with the necessary furnishings.
“We’ve had a lot of people contact us offering to help out in various ways, whether it be helping with the family’s English or taking them to appointments or grocery shopping or looking after the kids,” said group member Julie Angus, who’s waiting to hear back from government officials on what the next step should be.
Through Facebook Messenger, she’s kept in touch with the family — her uncle, his wife and three children aged 10, 14, and 19, who are currently staying in a dangerous region in Turkey. Who the second family will be remains a mystery for now.
“They are very grateful to our group and to all Canadians that have made this happen,” she said. “They are very much looking forward to coming to Canada and starting a new life here. They’ve been living in limbo for so long. The kids will have such an amazing future. Where they are now, there really is no future.”
B.C. will be receiving 400 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 and a further 1,500 by the end of February. So far, British Columbians have applied to privately sponsor about 220 Syrian refugees.