Temporary Surrey hotel rooms for 150 refugees as agency scrambles to find permanent housing

Arrivals lower than expected so far, says Coun. Villeneuve, with 21 Syrian refugees settling in Surrey since November.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner speaks at a community forum on refugees on Jan. 20.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner speaks at a community forum on refugees on Jan. 20.

SURREY — Roughly 150 Syrian refugees are being temporarily housed in a Guildford hotel as immigration workers scramble to find housing for them.

That’s an update from Olga Shcherbyna, Surrey’s Local Immigrant Partnership Co-ordinator, who shared the information with the city’s diversity advisory committee on Tuesday (Jan. 26).

“They’re coming in with large families, with lots of kids,” she noted.

Meanwhile, the city is collaborating with Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, the organization handling initial settlement, allowing the group to use recreation centres and libraries to hold orientation sessions, said Shcherbyna.

“We want to create space for the kids,” she said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, the City of Surrey hosted a community forum on refugees at Fleetwood Park Secondary that saw about 200 residents come out.

The idea was to bring government and service agencies into one room to provide information to residents and provide a venue to ask questions.

Shcherbyna said it was “highly positive” based on the feedback.

“People really appreciated the opportunity to hear from different levels of government. And they really, really appreciated the opportunity to connect with local service providers,” she noted, adding the event provided people with information on how they could help.

Connie Hong is a senior manager with Options Community Services Society, one of the groups at the recent forum.

This week, Options will be training more than 30 people who want to volunteer their time to help the refugees adjust to life here. Hong is pleased with how many residents have shown a desire to help.

Options has been contacted by several retired teachers who wanted to volunteer, and they will be doing topical “conversation circles” to teach English to refugees.

“One day we could focus on shopping, then maybe another group could focus on employment,” explained Hong. “Instead of general conversation we’re going to help with immediate needs.”

Many of the other volunteers will be trained as “social mentors,” said Hong.

That could include showing refugees around the city, introducing them to transit, rec centre and libraries, and perhaps taking them to a grocery store for the first time.

But Hong stressed it’s not just Syrian refugees who need help.

“The Iraqi’s are still coming, too,” said Hong.

Questions about the impact on Surrey’s school district were top of mind for many at the recent forum.

Surrey’s Welcome Centre manager Caroline Lai said so far, 10 Syrian refugee students have been registered in the district. Five of those are in elementary, five in secondary schools.

The district is anticipating another 300 to 350 students, and Lai said they’re ready.

“We don’t know if they’ll be coming in waves or if they’ll all just land on our doorstep one day,” remarked Lai. “We’re just trying to be as prepared as possible. But as a whole, we are experienced with dealing with refugee experiences and backgrounds.”

Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, a longtime advocate in the realm of refugees who chairs the Surrey Local Immigrant Partnership, said so far, roughly 60 per cent of the refugees to arrive have been under 18.

The number of arrivals have been lower than expected up to this point, according to Villeneuve. Since last November, 21 refugees have been settled in Surrey, she noted.

Villeneuve said the city plans to do a welcoming event sometime this spring once the influx has come.

Surrey has been proactive when it comes to its refugee population, said Villeneuve. The city was working on a long-term refugee strategy in partnership with the province long before the federal government’s announcement it would be accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees.

More recently, the city produced two brochures, one for residents wanting to help and one for refugees to learn more about their new community.

“We want people to start feeling connected immediately, even if they’re not permanently settled,” said Villeneuve.