Groundswell of good­will

Vol­un­teers step­ping for­ward to aid Syr­ian refugees


As the gov­ern­ment ramps up ef­forts to bring 25,000 Syr­ian refugees to Canada, im­mi­grant set­tle­ment agen­cies across Canada are see­ing an un­prece­dented surge in vol­un­teer sup­port for refugees. In­di­vid­u­als and busi­nesses are offering ev­ery­thing from mid­wifery ser­vices for preg­nant refugees to trucks to move fur­ni­ture into their new homes. “Very quickly it’s just got too much,” said Stephan Re­ich­hold, di­rec­tor gen­eral of TCRI, the co-or­di­nat­ing body for im­mi­grant set­tle­ment agen­cies in Que­bec. “The voice­mail is full af­ter 15 min­utes.”

In re­cent days, TCRI has fielded thou­sands of calls and emails offering as­sis­tance to in­com­ing Syr­i­ans from groups as di­verse as a maple syrup co­op­er­a­tive that wants to give a can of the sweet stuff to ev­ery Syr­ian land­ing in Que­bec to a group of grand­moth­ers in Mon­treal that plans to knit them toques.

Re­ich­hold’s ex­pe­ri­ence is not unique. Speak­ing on the side­lines of the Path­ways to Pros­per­ity Con­fer­ence, which brought im­mi­gra­tion ex­perts to­gether in down­town Toronto on Mon­day and Tues­day, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of set­tle­ment agen­cies from big cities and small towns across Canada said they’ve been in­un­dated with of­fers of sup­port.

While wel­come, the swelling pub­lic in­ter­est, which in­cludes sev­eral knit­ting groups in­volved in an ef­fort to knit 25,000 toques, adds lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges to the to-do list of set­tle­ment agen­cies that are al­ready busy co-or­di­nat­ing hous­ing and other ne­ces­si­ties for Syr­ian refugees.

“All of us are feel­ing very grate­ful that peo­ple are in­ter­ested and madly try­ing to fig­ure out how to han­dle this up­surge,” said Jean McRae, who rep­re­sents the set­tle­ment sec­tor at Path­ways to Pros­per­ity, an al­liance of Cana­dian or­ga­ni­za­tions that promotes im­mi­grant in­te­gra­tion.

Chris Friesen, chair­man of the Cana­dian Im­mi­gra­tion Set­tle­ment Sec­tor Al­liance, called it “the great Cana­dian Na­tional Project.” The Im­mi­grant Ser­vice So­ci­ety of Bri­tish Columbia, where Friesen di­rects set­tle­ment ser­vices, has re­ceived more than 5,000 calls from peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions across B.C. that want to help. It typ­i­cally works with 1,000 vol­un­teers in a year.

COSTI Im­mi­grant Ser­vices in Toronto has been sim­i­larly in­un­dated, though it hasn’t tab­u­lated the num­bers, while Fari­borz Bir­jan­dian, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Catholic Im­mi­gra­tion So­ci­ety in Calgary, re­ported that his or­ga­ni­za­tion has heard from about 2,000 po­ten­tial helpers, dou­bling their vol­un­teer base.

Small cities also see a spike in vol­un­teers. More than 1,400 cit­i­zens have signed up to a Face­book page to help refugees who end up in Moose Jaw, Sask., pop­u­la­tion 33,000.

Vol­un­teers across Canada will help with a range of tasks, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing sup­port for refugees as they set­tle in, con­ver­sa­tion cir­cles dur­ing which new­com­ers can prac­tise English and French, em­ploy­ment men­tor­ship and, if they speak Ara­bic, trans­la­tion for refugees.

In ad­di­tion to match­ing vol­un­teers with jobs, agen­cies are preparing ori­en­ta­tion ma­te­ri­als for vol­un­teers and plan­ning to vet those who want to work with fam­i­lies and chil­dren.

“When we’re match­ing peo­ple up and they’re not nec­es­sar­ily be­ing su­per­vised, we want to en­sure that there’s no crim­i­nal­ity in the back­ground of the vol­un­teers,” said McRae. She added the Inter-cul­tural As­so­ci­a­tion of Greater Vic­to­ria, which she runs, may hire ad­di­tional staff.

Then there’s the lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge of divvy­ing in-kind do­na­tions, which range from wel­come bas­kets to of­fers from rental car com­pa­nies to pro­vide trans­porta­tion for refugees. Some items, such as sec­ond-hand clothes, may not be use­ful. Mean­while, Ot­tawa still hasn’t fi­nal­ized the de­tails of the re­set­tle­ment plan.

Agency staff hope they can chan­nel the good­will into sup­port for refugees from other coun­tries, such as the Cen­tral African Repub­lic and Myan­mar, who are land­ing in Canada.

Cathy Wood­beck, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Thun­der Bay Mul­ti­cul­tural As­so­ci­a­tion, said she re­ceived 400 of­fers of help from across North­ern On­tario over just two days last week.

Some of the gen­eros­ity may be redi­rected to­ward pri­vate spon­sors or refugees else­where in On­tario. Some back­packs be­ing filled with school sup­plies for Syr­ian chil­dren may be given to Burmese kids set­tling in North­ern On­tario.

All of us are feel­ing very grate­ful that peo­ple are in­ter­ested and mad ly try­ing to fig­ure out how to han­dle this up surge.



Vol­un­teers sort and or­ga­nize cloth­ing do­nated to in­com­ing Syr­ian refugees in­side the Telus Gar­den in Van­cou­ver ear­lier this week.


Chil­dren of fam­i­lies in Jor­dan await­ing fi­nal gov­ern­ment ap­proval to move to Canada.

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