A $100,000 injection by the Alberta government is helping five provincial refugee settlement offices share their expertise with faith-based and other community groups who want to bring Syrian refugees to safety.
The centres in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge already help government-sponsored refugees get their social insurance numbers, register children in school and access English language classes. But they say they’re receiving hundreds of calls each week from people wondering how they can help.
Alice Colak, vice-president of immigration and settlement services for Edmonton-based Catholic Social Services, is putting together a proposal to the government to get a portion of that $100,000 to host public forums in October to guide interested people through the private refugee sponsorship process. In the past year, Colak said the settlement centre in Edmonton has helped 60 government-sponsored Syrian refugees — out of a total of 400 refugees from around the world — by greeting them at the airport, helping them find housing, connect with school or find work. In Red Deer, the centre has helped 24 government-sponsored Syrian refugees.
“The $100,000 is to do some community engagement with Albertans, basically respond to the great interest people have shown,” Colak said. The government grants will head out the door later this week or early next. Premier Rachel Notley also committed the government to give $75,000 to the Red Cross campaign and the government has already matched $75,000 in personal donations to the organization.
Colak said her agency has received about 100 phone calls from people in the past 10 days. Interest swelled after public saw the photo of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died along with his mother and brother when their boat capsized while carrying them to a Greek island.
“We’re all scrambling” to help, Colak said.
Colak is also helping 13 Edmonton-area Catholic churches which are working to bring 160 Syrian refugees to Edmonton under private sponsorships. About 15 have arrived. Colak said it typically takes up to to two years for a refugee to arrive.
Orlando Vasquez, programs director at Mennonite Central Committee, expects refugees could arrive faster now that the federal government has taken heat on its response to the Syrian crisis. Canada has committed to sponsoring 11,300 Syrian refugees and says 2,300 Syrians have already resettled here. But the government relies on private groups to sponsor about 60 per cent of the refugees. In Alberta, 16 organizations have such agreements with the federal government.
The Mennonite Central Committee, working closely with Edmonton’s Islamic Family and Social Services Association, has brought 36 Syrian refugees to Edmonton as part of its agreement, most who arrived between March and May. All have been sponsored by local relatives, who must come up with the money themselves.
It costs $29,700 to sponsor a family of four — a basic amount meant to cover housing and food for one year — or about $12,500 for a single person.
In total, the Mennonite committee has a sponsorship agreement to bring 168 Syrian refugees to Edmonton and 200 to Calgary, aided by a recent partnership with the Muslim Council of Calgary and the Canadian Syrian Association in Calgary. None of the Calgary refugees have arrived. Vasquez expects there will be an influx of new arrivals in October and November.
Five Mennonite churches in Edmonton are also fundraising $75,000 to bring 11 more refugees to the city.
“I think we are the most generous and most compassionate,” Vasquez said of Edmontonians, who have really responded to the Syrian crisis. “People can say any time about being a redneck province, but people really care.”