Refugees surprised to find themselves in Kelowna

Kelowna's new residents thought they were headed elsewhere ...

  • Mar. 18, 2016 10:00 a.m.

When four Syrian families disembarked from a flight to find themselves in Kelowna last Monday, everyone was surprised— including them.

“We thought we were getting one family from Vancouver, where there’s a backlog, but they were from Toronto where they’d spent eight days sitting in a motel,” said Keith Germaine, who as a part of the sponsorship efforts by The Roman Catholic Dioce

se of Nelson has been deeply involved with bringing refugees to the area for months.

“Then they were put on a plane (by government officials) and told they were going to Victoria.”

So, when the 29 Syrians landed —the vast majority of which being children under the age of 11—everybody, said “what?” said Germaine.

Expected or not, they all made the most of it.

Commandeering a cavalcade of taxis to shuttle the men, women and children to a place to sleep and have a meal, volunteers made it possible for Kelowna’s newest group of refugees to assess their options.

A couple families apparently had relatives in Edmonton, and were going to go there. Others were set on Victoria, which is where they were told they were going.

To give the families a taste of what Kelowna has to offer, the families were taken to a local gym where the children ran around.

“Something about that experience, made them think this is fine we will settle here,” said  Germaine.

“They seem happy enough to be in Kelowna, and feel welcome by the Islamic community and the volunteers.”

That brings the total number of Syrian refugees in the area to nearly 100—there were 69 before the last group arrived— and more are expected.

Kelowna Community Resources reached out to the Vancouver refugee organization and said they had what was necessary for five families.

Although it may seem like a great deal of people for a relatively small community, everyone involved in the effort is adapting to the needs quickly.

“That’s the great thing about a smaller city, “ said Marilyn Perry, a member of the Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy.

Everything from daycare, to ESL and playgroups are being put together, and quickly, to make the city’s new residents feel more at ease.

The group meets every two weeks. At the most recent meeting, they held a problem solving activity where people were presented with day to day challenges families might be going through.

Issues such as ESL training, job market orientation, child-minding, trades certification and affordable housing were seen as the most important community efforts that can support the welcoming of newcomers. They are building teams, or ‘pods,’ to support refugees, much like an extended family.

“Family to family volunteering is one of the options we are offering people who want to get involved. The Syrian family that we sponsored are some of our closest friends in Kelowna now. They reminded us of the joy that is available in community and to slow down and take time out of our busy schedules to just enjoy each other’s company,” said Jamie Henderson during the Q&A panel.

Henderson is part of groups sponsoring two families with the help of the Mission Creek Alliance.

“Kelowna is a city with huge capacity, resources, and a heart to give back. While we cannot solve the entire crisis, we can do our fair share to include these families, who are just like our own, in the privilege that we enjoy as Canadians.”

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