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Surrey Food Bank struggles to serve Syrian refugees

Food bank says language barriers and dietary issues are making serving 671 refugees tough.
The Surrey Food Bank says language barriers and dietary issues are making serving 671 refugees tough.

WHALLEY — Staff at the Surrey Food Bank are holding their breath as they struggle to feed more than 600 Syrian refugees already requiring help.

“We’re anticipating even more,” said bank director Marilyn Herrmann.

“I feel like I’ve kind of got my finger in the dam.”

The Surrey Food Bank is currently serving 671 Syrian refugees from 115 families.

As of April 12, 1,815 Syrian government-assisted refugees have arrived in B.C. and of those, 1,379 have moved into permanent accommodations including 670 people (155 families) in Surrey. Another 50 or more have come through private or blended sponsorships.

Translation has been an issue, Herrmann said. The food bank has hired a translator and is reserving 11:15 a.m. to noon for Syrian families. It has even created an Arabic pamphlet explaining what’s required to register.

“They didn’t understand what we were offering and we didn’t understand what they needed,” Herrmann said. “The impact has been mainly that much of the food we give them, they don’t know what it is. Or the labelling on the food they can’t read. So the language barrier has been a huge issue.”

The food bank is also buying more fruits and vegetables, and has just put in a big order for rice, noted Herrmann.

“We’re trying to learn what food items are available to us that will be suitable,” Herrmann added.

But some families have specific diets that the food bank just can’t cater to, she said, and they are working with the Muslim Food Bank to try to bridge that gap.

“All monetary donations would be tremendously helpful as we are purchasing more produce, rice, legumes and food items specific to the dietary needs of not only the Syrian refugees but all clients,” she said. “With the cost of food, you can imagine this puts extra pressure on our budget.”

Herrmann also welcomed any groups in Surrey that offer refugee programs to come during food bank distribution hours (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) to set up an information table and speak with clients.

“They may need to provide a translator or possibly we can help with that,” she remarked. “They just need to give us a call and we can schedule their time.”

Once the food bank has dealt with the influx in demand, Herrmann said she plans to develop programming to help the newcomers adjust to their new home.

“We’ll look at what resources we can offer,” she mused. “Where there may be gaps in services.”

During Surrey RCMP’s Officer in Charge Bill Fordy’s address at a Surrey Board of Trade crime luncheon last week, he spoke of the need for – and efforts of – law enforcement to connect with the newcomers.

“Locally, we’ve created a diversity unit,” Fordy said. “This preparation includes educating our police officers on many of the challenges these refugees face in their former country. Some of the experiences that they will have had at the hands of law enforcement in a country where police, many are corrupt, and the rule of law simply does not exist.”

Herrmann suggested the food bank could be a place for police to connect with the new refugees.

“We are so much more than just a place to receive food,” she said. “We connect community.”

According to a city report, new Syrian refugees are being housed in apartments and secondary suites throughout Surrey and are not concentrated in any single neighbourbood.

To contact the food bank, visit them online at or call 604-581-5443.

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