Over 1,400 Syrian refugees have moved to Edmonton since November and at least 1,000 more are to come. To help them settle, community-based groups like DECL and All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral are pitching in. “In dire times, we’re called to help [anyone] regardless of race, religion or anything,” says Chris Pilon, community engagement coordinator of All Saints’.
All Saints’ will soon assist one Syrian family. The church formed a sponsorship steering committee, and has raised about $45,000 to sponsor the family for a year. Equally valuable are the dozens of volunteers ready to greet them, arrange medical appointments, help with job hunting and so on. DECL also informally approached the church in fall 2015 about its planned response to the Syrian crisis; it’s committed to participating in any suitable capacity.
The chief concern for arriving refugees isn’t integration but navigation, says Pilon. Understanding housing, utilities, transportation, banking and schools in Canada’s comparatively bureaucratic society is complex. These hurdles can overwhelm anyone, and immigrants often have a limited grasp of English, which makes navigation harder. Even after short-term necessities are managed, refugees face ongoing challenges. They may worry about how to support their families after the sponsorship ends.
Pilon, who is also a DECL board member, says community leagues play a vital role in assisting refugees because their members are naturally passionate about their communities and want to share them with newcomers, whether from Syria or St. John’s. They also have connections to organizations, business owners and other resources that make them valuable sources of knowledge.
Leagues can also waive membership fees, supply information on their services and programs, and provide a liaison to connect families to programs directly. “If there are cultural issues happening, [leagues] could help to explain things to the families in a non-confrontational way,” says Elizabeth Nash. She recently formed the Refugee Response Group with members of the North Glenora Community League and Robertson- Wesley United Church. “These families come from very close-knit communities, and feeling welcome in their new neighbourhoods is very important for their integration.”
The North Glenora-sponsored family is a multi-generational family from Aleppo— four adults, three teenagers and six young children. They lived in a Lebanese camp for over two years after fleeing Syria in 2013, following an explosion outside their home. Laws restricted the adults from working, so the young boys took to selling paper on the street to support their extended family. They arrived in Edmonton in February, but the eldest daughter, her husband and their two children remain in Lebanon. Nash’s group is working with another community-based group in Glenora to reunite them. To show their appreciation, the family recently bought, butchered and cooked a goat for a thank-you dinner.
Pilon looks forward to the day he can see All Saints’ sponsored family comfortable, confident and beginning to feel at home in Edmonton. He hopes to meet them at a local event, not as refugees that the church sponsored, but as “fellow Edmontonians” who ventured out independently to enjoy their community.