Whistlerites rally for Syria after muni meeting 

Two housing units confirmed in recent days

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALISON TAYLOR
  • Photo by Alison Taylor

Michael Blaxland's reasons for helping strangers on the other side of the world are simple: "I feel sorry for the Syrian refugees. They're in rough shape and I think we should help them."

With that basic human sentiment, Blaxland has become a member of one of two Whistler groups with a goal of sponsoring a refugee family.

The latest development was borne out of last week's community meeting, organized by the municipality, which drew out 75 community members eager to learn more.

Whistler may not be first out of the gate when it comes to extending help to Syrian refugees, but its response to the crisis is at last gathering some steam.

Thirty people have signed volunteer forms in addition to the two sponsorship groups. A Facebook page — Whistler Refugee Response — now has 172 members.

And, perhaps most importantly, two different housing units have been offered up as space for any potential families.

"It's really exciting and it's in typical Whistler spirit," said Sarah Morden who is involved in one of the sponsorship groups.

The rest now is up to residents.

"The biggest thing I think people can do is show leadership," said Squamish resident Richard MacKellar, one of the key leaders in Squamish's refugee response.

MacKellar was one of the speakers at the meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

Although driven by Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden's quest at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual conference to open Canada's doors to more refugees and the subsequent staff report to council, this meeting is effectively where the work of Whistler's local government stops and where the community takes over.

"The municipality itself will not be sponsoring families," said Wilhelm-Morden. "This now goes over to you. We're relying on you to take it from here."

MacKellar has been a driving force in his own community to extend help to the refugees. He has been one of the leaders, helping form a Group of Five (G5), in which five or more Canadian or permanent residents help support a refugee family for a minimum of one year.

The group has committed to raising $40,000, but they expect to spend about half that for a family of four.

Community member Val Litwin offered some quick math to the audience to put that large expense in perspective.

Think, he said, about getting 40 or so families to give $100 a month for one year.

When asked how to keep the enthusiasm for a long-term project like this going in the community, MacKellar said that is a key part of the equation.

"I think that's really critical because this is a marathon, not a sprint."

The year-long timeframe to help a refugee family settle is likely not realistic.

"I think you do have to prepared for some ongoing support," he said.

MacKellar is now renovating the basement of his Squamish home to accommodate a Syrian family.

Housing, Whistler's perennial problem, was again part of the community discussion.

Blaxland asked if the municipality had considered temporary housing.

"I really see that as the Achilles heel of this whole process."

The mayor said housing was a pervasive problem across the province.

"I don't think the issue lies with the municipality," she added. "I think it lies with the community. We're not going to be sponsoring a lot of people realistically."

She imagines Whistler housing two to four families.

"The only thing left now is for communities to engage with the tools that have been given to them," said the mayor, referring to the federal government opening the doors to refugees and the provincial government providing funding.

Do a lot of reading, MacKellar suggested; ask a lot of questions; reach out for help to groups like ours, he offered.

Sarah Morden said the leadership teams of the two response groups will be meeting on Jan. 6 to hash out some of the details and create a timeline for fundraising.

Her reasons for helping are simple.

"You feel kind of helpless," said Morden, of the pictures of refugee despair. "This is the least I can do."

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