With files from SHEILAGH FOSTER

About two dozen residents attended a recent meeting at McBride’s Village chambers, intended to see if the community has the capacity to sponsor or host Syrian refugees. Early results say yes, the community does seem to have the capacity; who will take the lead is another question.

Since the federal election in October, the new Liberal government has increased its timeline for accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees to the end of February, but planeloads of refugees are expected to begin landing in Canada this week. In BC, the provincial government is expecting to receive 2,700 to 3,000 of them. While it is expected many refugees will be arriving in large metro centres which offer more services, cultural and language supports, many small communities across the country, including nearby communities like Clearwater, Jasper and Smithers have launched efforts to sponsor a family.

An informal meeting was held in McBride on Nov. 26th, organized by recently re-elected Village Councillor Rick Thompson. A letter entitled “Do we have the capacity, compassion and courage to sponsor or host Syrian refugees in McBride?” stated the meeting was not a commitment to proceed, but to determine if the community has the capacity to meet requirements for sponsoring refugees.

At the meeting Thompson outlined the procedures and commitments for sponsoring refugees from the federal government’s website The website outlines three ways Canadians can sponsor refugees: through Sponsorship Agreement Holders (generally large, well established groups that have signed agreements with the federal government), Groups of Five (five or more citizens or permanent residents who combine efforts and resources to help support refugees), or Community Sponsors (any organization that wishes to sponsor a refugee).

The webpage says that processing applications from new sponsors, either Groups of Five or Community Sponsors, may take longer to process, so the government encourages Canadians to connect with an established Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAR).

The webpage also says the documentation required has been temporarily reduced to make it easier for Canadians and permanent residents to sponsor Syrian or Iraqi refugees.

In general, sponsors agree to provide refugees with care, lodging and settlement assistance and support, usually for 12 months from the refugees’ arrival or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient, whichever comes first.

At the local meeting, issues like housing, jobs, language, education, food, trauma support services and a welcoming community were discussed. Some services that are or may be available were identified, such as counselling services through Robson Valley Support Society; English as a Second Language (ESL) training may be arranged through the school district; host groups have a selection of migrating people to choose from, so refugees wanting small rural communities and those with some English language skills may be better choices; there are a few local residents with experience living in Syria, including a young woman who speaks and reads Arabic fluently, and is eager to become involved; and the general consensus is that housing is available.

McBride is a welcoming community with a population almost entirely of immigrant residents, many of whom may well be refugees, says Sheilagh Foster.

“Not all of the residents are supportive of the idea of refugees settling here but there was a strong feeling that support would be forthcoming when refugees start arriving and the need for our help is recognized,” says Foster. She says many at the meeting felt the biggest obstacle to sponsoring refugees was a desire and commitment to do it.

“All other gaps in services can be met if the will and resolve exists,” says Foster.
“Folks left the meeting with ideas of how to pursue their interests through individual and community networks.”

Thompson says there was general enthusiasm to move forward, though issues that need to be addressed more fully include access to trauma counselling and access to adult ESL training.

“It was generally felt that the community was welcoming, steps up to the plate to fill identified gaps, and is willing,” says Thompson.

Some residents in Valemount are also considering options and capacity to host refugees. Local resident Jared Smith says he’s been interested in the issue since meeting a refugee from Eritrea who stayed in Valemount for a while, and is now living in Calgary. He’s also learned more about the issue through the work he does at the Valemount Learning Centre, which offers many of the services sponsors need to help arrange for refugees. The Centre currently offers programs like ESL and settlement services, employment and training services, and programs which can help with introducing newcomers to people with similar personal interests, helping with things like applying for health-care coverage, banking services, and help in searching for employment.

Thompson says there are still hurdles, including either finding an SAR to work with, or getting together a Group of Five or a Community Sponsor.

The Canadian government is still aiming to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada within about the next three months, a mix of private sponsorship and those supported solely by the federal government. Proponents of private sponsorship say it can aid a family’s integration into a community, as the family has a support network.