Learning about the Syrian crisis

The five year long Syrian Civil War is one of the largest conflicts in our world at this time. 250,000 dead (possibly more than 470,000 by some estimates), 6 million refugees, 11 million IDPs — the Syrian Civil war is a disaster and it doesn’t look to be ending soon.

The Middle East is not my specialty; Japan is the foreign country I know most about although I covered Tajikistan and Central in my Regional Analysis class at Royal Military College, and nearly wrote my master’s thesis on Iran. The closest I have ever been to the Middle East is Iran, with a layover in Dubai. But in working with the Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy (ORCA), I decided I needed to learn more about the context that these people are escaping from.

Coming to grips with the Syrian Civil War has a bit of a learning curve. Inside the country there are a lot of conflicting players. Then, as always, there are the outside influences. This (admittedly simplistic) WaPo diagram gives you a sense of the growing complexity (click to see the full flowchart):

syrian_crisis_diagram

The conflict in Syria not only involves lots of players, but also lots of issues: Syria is an example of the failure of the Arab Spring; it lies at the heart of the rise of ISIL/ISIS; it is a flashpoint of sectarianism and secularism; is a proxy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and the West. And that doesn’t even include the legacy of post-colonialism and dictatorship that Syria has suffered.

There are layers upon layers, so as a beginner I was looking for some books to provide context. Here are a few recommendations: Continue reading “Learning about the Syrian crisis”

New support for refugees in Kelowna — CBC Daybreak South interview

The Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy (ORCA) is a grassroots organization that aims to support the activities of all the neighbourhood groups in the Okanagan sponsoring individual refugee families. On average, it takes about 12 people to provide all the social and moral support needed by a single refugee family. We call these sponsor groups “support pods”. One key way we can support all the pods is coordinating common needs, for example organizing ESL classes or driving lessons. This way, each pod does not need to be re-inventing the wheel every time.

One of our current projects is managing volunteer coordination. We are building a centralized database of potential volunteers in the city that we can vet and then deploy to groups that need them. Furthermore, we need to recruit people keen on creating additional pods for more incoming families. There is an echo effect as newly landed refugees immediately ask if the sponsor group can also sponsor other family members who have been left behind in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, etc. There are many more Syrians that need our help.

Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) have a support pod built in by definition. But Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) do not. This creates a two-tier system that doesn’t benefit anybody. So, ORCA and the local sponsor organizations have always discussed a long-term vision of taking the care and support networks that have been prepared to support the PSRs, and extending it to the GARs.

No GARs have arrived in Kelowna yet, but with Vancouver asking to staunch the flow, GARs could theoretically be redirected here. And as with the PSRs, we could get very short notice. We want to be prepared. That is what this CBC interview is about.

If you want to help, sign up as a volunteer →

Are we a “hapa” family?

Family Portrait
Family portrait by MAUD.

In One Big Hapa Family Jeff Chiba Stearns investigates why there is such a high rate of interracial marriage (95%+) amongst Canadians of Japanese ethnic heritage (otherwise known as Nikkei). Through interviews with his family and other Nikkei in British Columbia, Chiba Stearns explores the historical experience of the Nikkei in Canada and issues surrounding multiethnic identity.

The DVD of this film was given to my wife and I at Christmas by a family friend who, with a slight grin on her face, commented simply: “You guys should watch this.”

She was right.

Sitting down to watch this, my wife and I laughed when we saw it was about growing up as a multiethnic kid in Kelowna! This is a constant topic of discussion in our household as we watch our multiethnic kids grow up here in Kelowna. My wife and I don’t identify as Hapa, but I am sure our kids will. Does this make us a Hapa family? Sorta? ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Continue reading “Are we a “hapa” family?”

2 years of real-world OGO Carshare usage data

OGO carshare data

We don’t own a car and we live in an ostensibly small Canadian city (about 150K) and have two small children (6 and 4). Needless to say, we are pretty heavy users of our local OGO Carshare. We use it pretty much every weekend for outings and shopping, and once or twice a month we will drive to Armstrong (about 150kms roundtrip) to visit my parents, sometimes staying over night. Since we use it so much we pay the monthly $25 member fee which halves the hourly rate. The costs of gas and maintenance are included, and I pay the annual $39 fee for the extra insurance (most people use the car insurance included in their credit card). I don’t know how this compares to other carshare users, but as you can see from the annual totals it is considerably less than the average annual cost of owning a car in 2015, which is $10,465 →. Plus, it is better for the environment. See why OGO helped drive me to downsize?

Helping Syrian refugees

Out of 11 million people diplaced during Syria’s five year long civil war, more than four and a half million are languishing in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and other countries. Many have been in the camps for years. At the end of October 2015, our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his intention to give sanctuary to 25,000 Syrian refugees. Not a large number compared to other countries, or even compared to Canada’s response to other refugee crises historically, yet this is still a large undertaking. Helping Syrian refugees is a massive national project and will take the support of many Canadians beyond the civil servants in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

I wanted to get involved. After some investigating and talking with friends involved, I joined ORCA.

ORCA_header

The Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy is a non-governmental group that connects neighbourhood groups sponsoring local refugee families with common services and advocates on their behalf to policymakers and the wider public. ORCA tackles issues on a project-by-project basis with special focus on things faced by every sponsorship group, for example vetting volunteers, organizing English as a Second Language training, and even securing driver’s licenses. ORCA’s role is to support the wider network of sponsor groups as needs arise.

There are currently 8 (known) groups sponsoring a couple of dozen families in the region (you can see short profiles of each group at orcabc.org). Sponsoring a family takes a lot of time and money. Usually, each family is supported by a dozen people. In most cases in the Okanagan these groups privately raise at least $30,000 to see the refugee family through their first year. So far we have not received any Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). Most are Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) or a mix of government and private (BVOR: Blended Visa Office-Referred).

Meeting with these neighbourhood groups (we at ORCA call them “support pods”) I have been impressed with their variety and resilience. These are regular people without any special training trying to help other humans in need. To get a sense of what kind of people are in these groups, and what they talk about, listen to this short CBC documentary about a sponsor group in Toronto. Some of the topics that come up in pod meetings are very intense, leading to philosophical debate. Groups have differences in how they approach problems, but they are all doing excellent work, and I aim to support them in any way I can.

Since starting on this project, I have learned that many of the problems that refugees face are actually part of bigger social problems. The standout is housing. Securing homes for incoming refugees, which often arrive with just 24 hours of notice, has been the main challenge of sponsor pods so far. But this is in the context of a wider housing crisis. Kelowna is ranked “Severe” on the Canadian Housing Rental Index. More than a quarter of people here spend half of their income on rent, and availability is very tight (2.6% as of Apr 2015). Other centers in Canada are also suffering from the same problem. In the long-term, we are looking to tackle issues like this — issues that not only refugees face — in a more holistic manner. In the meantime, there is only a couple more months of intake and a whole lot of soon-to-be-arriving families on the horizon that need help.

If you are interested in helping too, please visit ORCA and get in touch. In general, sponsor pods need to solve the housing issue. If you have access to affordable housing, please let us know. Sponsor groups are also looking for people with professional skills (doctors, dentists, etc) willing to donate their time, as well as drivers to help with mobility, and of course potential employers. Things like clothes, furniture and toys are generally not needed. Vehicles are, especially vans for large families. Monetary donations are always welcome. Since we have no central fund, talk to an ORCA rep to find out where your money is most needed. If you want to dedicate the next year or so of your life and help a family, become a sponsor pod member or start your own pod! There are more and more families coming, and long term volunteers that get to know the families and shepherd them along in their journey are sorely needed. If you are looking for a new project, or are looking to do some good in the world, I can assure you that helping a Syrian (or any other nationality) refugee family is highly rewarding.