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Middle East meets West

Syrian refugees could soon find a new home in the Sea to Sky corridor

People move to the Sea to Sky Corridor for a lot of different reasons. Easy access to one of the world's best ski resorts is, of course, a big factor for many new residents, but for others it might be for career advancement, the stunning scenery, proximity to a major urban centre, to take advantage of the red-hot real estate market, and/or simply because it's a great place to raise a family or retire.

Few people have come here because they are fleeing their home country due to a civil war, but this is soon about to change as corridor communities prepare to welcome an unspecified number of Syrian refugees.

Nobody is sure when exactly they are going to show up. Or even where they are all going to stay.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has changed his campaign promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the calendar year. Instead, the federal government will be shooting for 10,000 new arrivals by Dec. 31, with the remaining 15,000 to be settled by the end of February. Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, roughly 12 million people have been killed or displaced, more than half of the Middle Eastern country's pre-war population. At last count, more than 4.2 million Syrians have registered as refugees, most of them women and children.

Four hundred are expected to arrive in British Columbia in December.

"We're still waiting for the details," says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSBC), adding the first wave of new arrivals will be split roughly half-and-half with government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees. "Two hundred are going to be government-assisted and coming mainly to the Vancouver area, while the other 200 we don't really know yet which communities in B.C. they'll end up in."

The Lower Mainland cities of Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam, which all have robust and diverse immigrant communities, are expected to be the top choices for most of the new arrivals. Metro Vancouver has seen 3,346 Syrians settle there in the past five years, according to ISSBC. The process will see Syrians held first in temporary reception facilities before being transferred into the communities where they will live.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says she hopes her town will end up being to home to some of them.

"When the word is out that, yes, Whistler is going to receive some families, there is an expectation that people might say 'hey, I've got a house that I use two weeks at Christmas. It's available,'" says Wilhelm-Morden. "We are a small but very caring community and have significant resources that I think we can offer."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler is hosting a meeting beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 16 at the library for local residents to discuss how they might be able to lend a hand. The issue is a something of a personal priority for Wilhelm-Morden, who successfully introduced an emergency resolution at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting in September requesting immediate action from the then-Conservative federal government to increase aid to Syrian refugees.

"It is so cliché that this is a country full of opportunities... but it is true," she says. "For those millions of people who are so desperate that they'd leave their homes, they'd leave their extended families, leave their jobs, they've put their children in dangerous circumstances to escape their country, it is just ridiculous for us not to welcome them in."

However, not all residents share her enthusiasm for bringing Middle Eastern troubles to the Whistler bubble. While local resident Stu Wild supports Canada's efforts to bring in refugees, he questions the role of the municipality in this process, as well as Whistler being the best place for a Syrian refugee.

"Does council know the true cost to bring a family to Whistler and support them?" asked Wild via Facebook on the busy Whistler Politico page. "This is not what you have been elected to do. Those on council that feel it is their pet project to adopt a family from the Middle East, perhaps they should open their wallets and personal homes first."

The post prompted a heated debate with dozens of replies about the potential pros and cons of resettling refugees here, with many pointing to the town's perennial housing problems.

Wilhelm-Morden acknowledged that finding permanent accommodation in Whistler can be difficult at the best of times, let alone during the beginning of ski season and shortly after 21 units were lost in a Nov. 10 fire at an Alpine Meadows residential complex.

"Certainly housing would be one of our biggest challenges, but I have had people contact me and tell me they've got room. The Alpine fire displaced a certain number of people that obviously have to find houses as well and that will be a challenge. On the other hand, Whistler has welcomed people from all over the world and there is no reason why we couldn't welcome some Syrian families, if, for example, we had maybe five families here in Whistler and five more in Squamish."


But while Whistler's stock in trade is welcoming newcomers to town, they are normally well-heeled tourists or expats rather than shell-shocked survivors of a bloody civil war.

Carole Stretch, an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher and faculty member with Capilano University's Community Development and Outreach department, has spent the past eight years helping immigrants find their feet in the Sea to Sky region and so far has only seen two refugee families settle here.

"We have worked with two families who did not land in the corridor but moved up here because there were jobs," says Stretch. "Both families had significant language requirements. What we offer in Whistler is ESL, which is in groups, is informal and is not every day. There is no way for them in Whistler to come to school every day for six months, learn the language and then go on out. They are struggling with the language and trying to earn a living and I would say one individual was actually, apart from the language, he was quite clear that he had goals for where he wanted to get to and was working hard to get there. The other family really has longstanding mental health issues and struggle to support themselves."

Neither of the two families originally came from the Middle East, although Stretch said she is aware of some Syrian-Canadian families living in the area who resettled here as economic migrants.

Stretch, herself an immigrant who moved to Canada from the U.K. a decade ago, points out this won't necessarily be the case with other refugee families and that the first wave of Syrians to arrive in Canada will likely be made up of those who had both the means and foresight to get out of the country during the early days of the war.

"A lot of these people, as I understand it, who have been identified to come over, were among the first refugees from the Syrian war," says Stretch. "They have been in camps for maybe two to three years. We are not talking about the people you are seeing on the news right now. They are more likely to be middle-class and well-educated. Whether that means they have language skills or not doesn't necessarily follow but if we are going to give them meaningful new lives in Canada, it would be nice to use those skills."

Stretch said available resources in the area are geared primarily towards people with language issues.

"Within government settlement services, we have things called needs-assessment and referrals, so that would be for when newcomers come into the country, we assess them and refer them on to any local community services that may be available or appropriate. So we look at things like, do they need help with employment or housing or... documentation for healthcare, for example? And then if there are information and orientation needs, we then move them into that program. It could be employment law or Canadian law and improving their language [skills], it could be employment or education or providing information on money and finances or transportation."

She pointed out that many refugees will be suffering from psychological trauma, something non-profit organizations in the area don't currently have the resources to adequately address.

"Mental health support is going to be key," says Stretch. "Refugees do have a hard time resettling. It is not a one-year thing, it is a multi-year thing, and support in their own language — particularly on the mental health front — is absolutely key."

Small Town Support

Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman says that while the town doesn't have the infrastructure and wider support networks offered in the Lower Mainland, the tightly knit community nonetheless offers things immigrants might not find elsewhere.

"It may actually be much nicer for them to integrate into a very intimate community as opposed to a big city that can sometimes feel alienating," says Heintzman. "We are so close to the city as well, so they can always get down if, for example, they are looking for a mosque. We also do have a small Muslim community in Squamish with a few families, so it's not like there is nobody. Fundamentally, we would like to have a few families so that they'll be there supporting each other ,but I think that a small town like ours, or a small city like ours, can really create the support systems to help them adjust to Canadian life."

She pointed out that it wouldn't be the first time the community has welcomed refugees and that Squamish took in a number of the so-called "Boat People" from Vietnam and Cambodia who appeared on Canadian shores in the late 1970s. Heintzman added that families coming to Squamish will be coming through the Group of Five (G5) program, which are made up of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee and have agreed to provide emotional and financial support for a period of one year.

"Squamish has been pretty active for a while and I've been working with them a little bit," says Heintzman. "I think there are three different groups that have organized into groups of five to support a family. They are accepting donations, fixing up accommodations, getting all that organized, making sure all the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted. I expect it will either be 'hurry up and wait' or it will happen right away, meaning there could be very short notice."

Pam Gliadis, a worker at the non-profit Hotspot Community Resource Centre in Squamish, said it could be even longer before any refugee families show up given that the local groups only recently submitted their applications and that private sponsorship is a lengthy, time-consuming process.

"As far as I know, there are no imminent arrivals," says Gliadis. "There is more interest because there is more news in the media and the government announced their process last month. The groups of five that formed here happened around all the recent publicity about what was happening in Europe and that child [Alan Kurdi] who died, among other children, but there are other groups in Canada who have been in the sponsorship program for quite a while and those folks are arriving first because the sponsorship program takes over a year. My understanding is families that are arriving are as a result of applications that were initiated quite some time ago."

Kim Slater, the communications coordinator for the Village of Pemberton (VOP), says there are no immediate plans in the works by the VOP to take in refugees although there could be members in the community privately sponsoring people she is unaware of. She later emailed the following official statement on behalf of council: "We support the settlement and resettlement of refugees in those areas where they can access vital housing, employment, health and social services towards ensuring their immediate and long-term needs are met. At this point, we are still considering what we can offer and how we can best assist. There is certainly a tremendous amount of goodwill and desire to help in our community, and we urge residents to connect with ISSBC, the lead agency in B.C. working on the refugee crisis, to learn how they can help."

Get Stuffies

While most people are still waiting and wondering when refugees may arrive, one Squamish resident decided to bring some aid directly to Syrians still languishing in makeshift camps in Germany. Adam Greenberg recently flew overseas with three suitcases full of stuffed animals and an envelope full of cash after finding himself moved at an emergency community meeting in October at the Squamish Adventure Centre, organized to address the refugee crisis.

"There were two kids there who had heard about the war and the refugees and how there were so many children amongst the refugees," says Greenberg over the phone from Toronto shortly before boarding a plane. "These kids got up and said they could imagine how scared these kids must be and that when they are scared at night, they cuddle up with a stuffie. They heard these kids had left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and so they took it upon themselves to go door to door to collect stuffies for these kids. Of course, when you are a seven-or nine-year-old kid, you have no idea how complicated it is to send these toys overseas."

Greenberg had accumulated plenty of Air Miles points through his job as vice-president of a software company and volunteered to personally deliver the donations after it emerged the mothers of one of the children has a personal connection to refugee camps in Germany.

"Christine McLeod is the mother of one of the kids, whose name is Nicole, and they had housed a German exchange student years ago, and so she reached out because they had stayed friends ever since. It turns out the student is a good friend with a dentist who is volunteering there and representing a group of dentists who pooled their money and created a mobile dental truck and are driving around all these camps doing free dental work. She asked if Adam from Canada could tag along and they said 'yes.'"

Greenberg, who is Jewish, also handed over 5,000 euros as part of a grassroots fundraising campaign to help the Arab refugees.

"The lessons from World War II is that, not long ago, Jews were refugees and the same sort of things were being said about Jews. I've heard it all and now people are saying similar things about Muslims: 'They are dangerous, they want to take over the world, we can't have them here.' I look back at the stuff I heard growing up and think, 'sheesh, here we go again.' When you see people in such a desperate state and you have the means to help, you should. I believe that if private citizens group together and put up their homes to help out, I think people would find once they've let people into their homes, that these are intelligent people who have something to contribute and over time will be an asset to the community and their families."

Greenberg says he had no idea if any of the refugees he'll meet will ever end up in Squamish but he would love to someday introduce any who arrive to one of his passions.

"I'm an avid snowboarder and I admit to imagining having a new friend to go snowboarding with."

An Arab and a Jew going up a T-bar together may sound like the beginning of a bad joke but may not be as far-fetched as it sounds given that the Syrian-Israeli border is home to the only ski resort in the Middle East. Mount Hermon is 2,814 metres high and is the largest mountain in either country. The southern and western slopes were captured by Jewish forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the resort — which is only accessible via the Golan Heights — opened for business four years later.

However, in 2005 Syria announced plans to build a $15-billion ski resort on their own side of Mount Hermon, which biblical scholars believe to be the same mountain where Jesus underwent his Transfiguration. The project, to be developed by an unspecified group of Syrian, Kuwaiti and Saudi investors, was to include hotels, shopping centres and various other sports facilities reachable by cable car. It's probably safe to say the project is now on hold indefinitely.

Arabs and Jews may not be skiing or snowboarding together in their ancestral homelands any time soon.

But here in the Sea to Sky, it could just be another day on the mountain. n

Community meetings in Whistler and Squamish this month

There's a part of Adam Greenberg that wishes he never went to the refugee camp in Germany to deliver those stuffed animals last month.

Such was the emotional rollercoaster on his return, particularly reading and listening to his fellow countrymen dismiss the Syrians' plight.

"After being there and reading that stuff, I had a breakdown," says Greenberg candidly.

"I realized that they (the refugees) are just like us. It made me realize (when I returned) how small-minded people can be."

He will be talking about his experience at a community fundraiser on Saturday Dec. 19 at the Brackendale Art Gallery. The event will take place from 5 to 7 p.m.

Mayor Patricia Heintzman will speak and Greenberg will show videos and pictures of his journey. There will also be a silent auction.

Greenberg says it was an eye-opening journey travelling to Europe to deliver the stuffies.

Families in the refugee camp he visited were living side by side in small quarters, separated by hanging sheets. Single men, on the other hand, were living in large gymnasiums, which housed about 50 to 60 people, sleeping in bunk beds.

"By no means is this a future," says Greenberg.

The experience inspired him to sponsor a family, an effort that will take at least $35,000. The search is on now to find a family a place to live, as well as the task of raising money.

To learn more about Greenberg's first-hand experience and to help with the fundraising, head to the Brackendale Art Gallery on Dec. 19.

Meanwhile, Whistler will be hosting a community meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the library. All are welcome to attend and learn about:

• The current status of refugees coming to Canada.

• Programs and community organizations available to assist refugee families in Whistler.

• How other communities are supporting refugees.

• Becoming involved in sponsoring refugee families to Whistler.

Arrive early as space will be limited.

- with files from Alison Taylor