Refugees start to arrive in B.C. to warm welcomes

Mennonite Central Committee estimates 75 Syrian families could settle in Fraser Valley

An emotional first encounter between a newly arrived Syrian refugee family and their local Mennonite church sponsors Monday night is expected to be replicated for weeks and months to come at YVR and other B.C. airports.

A handful of new Syrian refugees have arrived in B.C. in recent days and around 30 more are expected by the end of this week, according to Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

Monday’s arrivals at Vancouver International Airport – a Syrian couple and their 18-month-old son destined for an apartment in Richmond – were met with hugs, gifts and ‘Welcome to Canada’ signs in English and Arabic.

The father, Samer Alragheb, speaking through a translator, said it was his dream to come to Canada and have his son take his first steps here.

Gerd Bartel, a Ladner resident who is part of the local church sponsor group and also heads donor relations for the Mennonite Central Committee in Abbotsford, predicts similar scenes will unfold across B.C. and fuel the already intense appetite of B.C. residents to sponsor refugees.

“Three young moms from our church were all there and they brought all the other little children. They had three-year-olds giving presents to the new little one-year-old,” he recounted.

“This welcoming of hugs and presents – that’s what the power of families connecting with families can do.”

Bartel said the Fraser Valley is proving particularly fertile ground, with new groups of prospective sponsors – some church-based, some not – emerging daily to seek Mennonite Central Committee organizational help.

He estimates at least 75 Syrian refugee families are likely to be sponsored in the Fraser Valley over the next year, many of them settling in Abbotsford-Mission or Chilliwack.

“Just about every night someone’s heading to another group to talk and help them set up,” he said.

Rent is much more affordable in the Fraser Valley than Vancouver and Bartel is confident a strong community network  will be in place, along with appropriate worship space for Muslims even in communities without mosques.

Sponsor groups typically arrange housing, furniture and other needs as well as a significant amount of cash – typically $25,000-plus – to cover rent and groceries for a year.

Donations are in some cases funnelled to some sponsor groups from other people who want to help financially but can’t form their own group.

MCC has acted as intermediary for numerous sponsor groups with the federal government.

“A large part of them aren’t part of the Mennonite community,” Bartel added. “We’re just facilitating for anybody.”

He once helped resettle six families of Vietnamese boat people 35 years ago and says Canada is much better organized this time.

Syrian families arriving now land with Arabic interpreters standing by at the airport, and usually Arabic-speaking doctors already arranged for them. Health coverage is provided by B.C. immediately without a wait period.

Bartel noted the Canadian response is in stark contrast to that of the U.S., where his Mennonite counterparts are gloomy about their dim prospects to welcome Syrians.

“It’s kind of sad when you’ve got the largest economy and strongest country in the world and refugees aren’t coming.”

Friesen said large numbers of Syrians arriving in Canada by the plane load could begin by January.

Incoming refugees land initially in Montreal or Toronto and may spend a night or two at a military base before flying to B.C.

About 200 additional government-assisted refugees to come to B.C. by the end of the year, in additiuon to the ones that are privately sponsored.

Friesen said the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. has had 460 offers of rooms in private homes to house refugees.

“Quite a few of the housing leads are in north Delta, which is a non-traditional destination.”

Samer Alragheb and his wife and son at YVR Monday.

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