Refugee families are already finding their place in communities around the Okanagan valley.
In advance of the 163 Syrian refugees who left Beirut Thursday on a Toronto-bound Canadian Forces Airbus, Kelowna had already welcomed the first Syrian family. On Monday they started to build a new life in Oliver.
Additionally, a Myanmarian family started to put down roots in Kelowna after arriving Tuesday, an Iraqi family was expected to arrive Wednesday and, with just a couple days notice, another Syrian family was expected to make their way to Kelowna Friday.
“There’s a lot of good stuff happening in Kelowna,” said Keith Germaine, a member of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nelson, which has been helping settle refugees in the region. Area residents have been incredibly generous, he noted, and there’s currently no need for donations of any kind.
When all is said and done 25 refugee families are expected to call the Okanagan home.
It’s been a tremendous undertaking for the Nelson Diocese, said Germaine, noting that the red tape they faced from the previous government seemed nearly insurmountable at times. Short notice to find housing for the Syrian family arriving Friday was also a challenge.
All in all, however, it was an effort they’re glad to have made.
“It was news that ISIS was executing people that got us going,” he said. “There were a few of us at the church who said we have to do something.”
That effort includes finding funds to house the families arriving for a year, at least.
“It’s been difficult in Kelowna, but people have stepped up and helped us out,” he said. “So far we have kept our heads above water. Also Habitat for Humanity donated a townhouse for the Syrian family for a year.”
Looking forward, he hopes to partner with Habitat for further opportunities to house low income people.
“We need to increase housing for both locals and refugees,” he said.
The benefit of helping locals in need is obvious, but there are so many reasons to help the refugee families, too. And they go beyond simply being a humanitarian.
“Why would you think Germany is spending billions on these refugees? It’s because they know that’s what’s going to save their economy down the road,” he said. “How can you have a growing economy when your population isn’t growing? We need these people.”
The region’s cultural mosaic will also be brighter for their presence.
“We need to find out what other cultures are like,” he said. ” Kelowna needs to have cross cultural experience to deal with issues of divergence. Canada is not a melting pot. We’re not trying to get everyone to look the same and be the same. We want everyone to be different.”
And, he said, it’s not just Syrianr refugees who are going to help the community.
“There are lots of refugees all over the world who are desperate,” he said.
“I wasn’t even personally aware there were so many refugees in the world until I became aware the government was and not doing. It was surprising and humiliating to see how Canada had closed immigration in Canada to everyone but those who are well heeled… hopefully this interest in immigration couple people to ask more questions about what is happening and what we should be doing as a country.”