By Sharon Taylor-
“The public support has been remarkable,” says Paola Konge, president of the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group (WLRSG) Organizing Committee. “So many people are asking how they can get involved.”
More than 50 people have joined the newly-formed WLRSG, and are actively preparing for the next steps. Local organizations such as the CMHA – Cariboo-Chilcotin Branch Multiculturalism Program, the Women’s Contact Society, the Central Interior Community Services Co-op, Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society, and St Peter’s Anglican Church are providing practical support to the WLRSG, which has made some processes easier.
The WLRSG operates as a Constituent Group of the Diocese of Kootenay, a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the federal government. Constituent Groups sponsor refugees through the Blended Visa Office Referral Program, which means the government provides up to six months of financial support. The local group is responsible for the remaining financial support, as well as emotional, social, and community support for the first 12 months of the refugees’ time in Canada. The WLRSG has so far received more than $22,000 in donations, with additional pledges to come in the coming year.
“There are several more stages to go through before any refugees arrive in Williams Lake,” says Sharon Taylor, settlement practitioner with the Williams Lake Branch of Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society of Prince George. “With all the changes coming into effect with a new government, there’s a lot of confusion.
“Every time I explain the next step in the process, the process changes,” she says.
“So now I try to focus on a few things. One: we will be sponsoring as many people as we can provide support for. Two: we would be thrilled if we could support four to six people, probably in one family. Three: we requested refugees in great need, which may or may not mean Syrian or Iraqi families will be coming here.”
The Syrian crisis has been in the news for the past few months, with nearly four million Syrians fleeing to nearby countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, and then on to Europe. More than seven million have been displaced within the country, abandoning bombed out cities, constantly moving to places that may be safer for only a few months as the conflict evolves.
World-wide conflicts have led to the greatest number of forcibly displaced refugees in recorded history. According to a UNHCR report, “In the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and this year in Burundi); three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).”
As a result, 59.5 million people are presently on the move. Half of those are children.
Increased awareness of the crisis has led to more constituent groups across Canada forming to sponsor and support refugees: more than 25 groups in Victoria alone, including the Jewish synagogue; an Armenian Orthodox Church in Richmond sponsoring 30 young families; Kamloops RAFT preparing for 100 people, and small communities like Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, Castlegar, Vernon, and others considering what kind of support they can offer.
The next step for the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group, according to the Organizing Committee, is to secure storage space for donations of furniture, clothing, and household items.
“Until we know who is coming, we can’t be too specific about housing needs, etc. although we will be asking for support with that eventually,” says Konge. “But we already have people wanting to donate things, and at the moment we are having to ask them to hold on to them. If someone has an unused space they could loan us for a few months, that would be great.”
Financial donations continue to be accepted, as there will be some ongoing costs for the refugees. Charitable donation tax receipts for 2016 can be issued if contact information, including mailing address, phone number, and email (if possible), is included.
Cheques can be made out to St Peter’s Anglican Church (write Refugee Support Fund on the memo line) and mailed to:
Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group, PO Box 4346, Williams Lake, BC
To stay up to date on WL Refugee Sponsorship Group meetings, news, and events, please check the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/wlrsg or contact Sharon Taylor at email@example.com or (778) 412-2999.
Sharon Taylor is the settlement practitioner for the Immigrant and Multicultural Service Society in Williams Lake, helping people navigate the often cloudy waters of government forms and processes. She works with local groups such as the Social Planning Council, the Women’s Spirituality Circle, the Violence is Preventable workgroup, and the WL Refugee Sponsorship Group to help make Williams Lake a more welcoming and just community. She taught at Thompson Rivers University for several years, and has been involved in many arts and culture groups in the Williams Lake area.