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.
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.