Coun. Judy Villeneuve says that in spite of negative responses from some, she sees little evidence that Surrey residents are unwilling to welcome an anticipated wave of Syrian refugees between now and the end of February.
“Our city is stepping up – we’re playing our role,” said Villeneuve, who, along with Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman, is co-chair of the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP).
“People here are generous and willing to help. After living and working in this community as a member of council for more than 26 years, I can say that people are proud to be living here and want to make a contribution to help others… We’ll be doing what we can within the federal directives and working with everyone in the community to make sure this is a welcoming and inclusive city.”
It’s a good bet that a high proportion of future arrivals in the Lower Mainland will be coming to Surrey; more than half of the 43 government-assisted Syrian refugees who arrived in B.C. so far this year have settled here.
Chris Friesen, executive director of the Immigrant Services Society, has estimated that as many as 800 refugees could end up living in the city within the next three months, as part of the federal government’s commitment to settle 25,000 across the country before March.
“We have 500 to 700 refugees and new immigrants coming to our city a year,” said Villeneuve. “Bringing in everyone at once is going to be more of a challenge – it will have an impact on our social infrastructure, but I’m confident that we will be able to provide services for them.”
Villeneuve noted 3,000 residents have offered help through the Immigrant Services Society, while she has fielded calls from Rotary clubs and individuals.
Among key challenges, Villeneuve said, is language education and accessing mental-health services – a critical component for those still dealing with the trauma of fleeing their war-torn homeland.
Villeneuve said refugees are going through a rigorous security process imposed by the federal government.
“They will have been through four major screening processes,” she said. “I personally don’t believe there will be any security concerns. More my worry is ensuring the families coming here are welcomed and have the settlement services they need.”
The LIP met Tuesday as part of an ongoing process of developing strategy to “harness the different service providers” to integrate the new arrivals into the community. The LIP plans to also play a role in obtaining provincial and federal funding.
“We want to provide, not only the services they need to live but the services they need to gain employment and become productive members of our community,” Huberman said.
Rather than being a drain on resources, she added, refugees can bring skills and experience that benefit the economy.
“Foreign credentials need to be recognized – we’re currently facing a skills shortage. We have to work with the accrediting bodies, whether it’s in fields like engineering or medicine,” she said.
“It’s a paradigm shift for us – we’re living in a new global economy.”
– with files from Kevin Diakiw