West Kelowna Initiative for Refugee Settlement earns interest from UN

When the world asks about how to help Syrian refugees find their footing in countries, they may find the answer in West Kelowna.

When the world asks about how to help Syrian refugees find their footing in countries, they may find the answer in West Kelowna.

“We were approached by a former journalist who does a lot of work for the UN. The UN High Commission for Refugees had contacted her and asked if she could track down a Canadian group that was privately sponsoring a Syrian family,” said Gioia Morris, a representative for the West Kelowna Initiative for Refugee Settlement.

Morris learned a little more about what was needed, and then the camera crews rolled in and started filming Mohammed Al Breij, his wife Sahar, and their four children, ages two to 10, as they started to adapt to Canadian life with the help of the five families who sponsored them with partial help from the Canadian government.

Lynn Raineault wrote the piece titled The Kindness of Strangers, which uses photos and footage by Jimmy Jeong, to tell the story of how the private sponsorship model works in Canada.

Of the 26,000 Syrian refugees who have made it to Canada in recent months, only 6,000 have used this model.

The three-minute film was played at a meeting dealing with global responsibility sharing through pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, which was hosted March 30 by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The film shows the families talking about what the support of their sponsor families has meant to them.

They fled Syria five years ago to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where they lived in a shack with a dirt floor.

There was no school for the children, no opportunity to learn English or prepare for what was to come, which made the welcome they received all the more welcome.

“They help with everything, we don’t feel like we are alone doing this. We are one complete family,” Sahar said, with the help of a translator.

“In Canada, I see a bright and better life for me and my children and my husband. My children will be going to school. My husband will have a better future and get a good job.”

Morris said it was an honour to be featured, as the film also highlighted how much work the West Kelowna families have done to make the sponsorship work.

“We finally did find a rental house for them and that’s been a relief,” she said, adding that it’s slim pickings for housing that is both ideal for a family that size and affordable, once they take rent payments out of the sponsors hands.

“It will be really, really good because that means they will be really settled. It has a bit of a backyard and Mohammed is looking forward to working on it.”

The children, said Morris, are doing well at school. She said one member of the sponsorship group has gone above and beyond teaching the whole family English.

The participation from all the sponsors has been tremendous, said Morris.

It’s why she believes the model they chose to help is the best.

It’s also an intense commitment, and the group has yet to decide whether they would be willing to sponsor another family or just do something to support the government sponsored families that are already here.

“We are all people who have busy lives and it’s a lot,” she said.

“We love what we’re doing and it’s so rewarding, and we would do it again and again and again, but it is a big commitment.”

The sponsors meet once a month to assess what’s needed, as Morris said the biggest concern they have at the moment is creating a lifestyle the family will be able to sustain down the road.

They have four of six months government funding yet to come in, but the sponsor commitment end-date is still up in the air.

“The goal is to get them self-sufficient within a year…completely self-sufficient. Whether it will happen, I don’t know how likely that is,” said Morris.

“We have accomplished a tremendous amount of stuff in a reasonable time.

“We do have a strict budget, we want to make them learn to live on a budget that’s based on  someone living full-time on minimum wage.”

That, she said, is difficult.

“We love them like they’re family and we want to give them whatever, but we have to remind ourselves that there are boundaries, and we need to be as professional as we can,” she said.

“In the long run, they need to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

One example of that balance was the realization that the couple’s childcare needs would be pricey.

Mohammed and Sahar were accepted into the same ESL class, which required a lot of daycare.

“We covered it, but our budget is only so big,” she said.

“We realized we don’t want to do fundraising to have daycare paid for.

“There are all these things you don’t anticipate, and we’ve made some mistakes, and said, ‘Let’s do it’ about some things and then afterwards realized, ‘That wasn’t that smart.’”

In the end, daycare only lasted three weeks. The boys struggled because it was too much too soon without English, so Sahar decided she’d stay home during the afternoon.

Luckily, a spot in the morning class opened up.

“There’s no manual, saying, OK here is how you do this,” said Morris.

“We had a few pages of advice on how to handle it, but there are so many ways people are doing this and it’s dependent on what the (Syrian) family is like.”

In the end, however, Morris believes that the model they’ve chosen is the best.

“They are going to integrate faster, and they’re going to be more positive about being in Canada and contributing to the community,” she said.

“They had a support group who loved them immediately. That’s why we were excited to promote this model. It’s a no- brainer.”

The video van be found at http://tracks.unhcr.org/2016/04/the-kindness-of-strangers/.