B.C. plans regional refugee teams

Language training, job aid also pledged by provincial government as preparations gear up for incoming Syrian refugees

B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond and federal Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum field questions from reporters Wednesday in Surrey.

Five refugee response teams will be set up by the B.C. government to help support incoming Syrian refugees in the main regions of the province where they’re expected to settle.

The teams are planned for Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and the Cariboo, and will include refugee settlement organizations, private sponsors, churches, educators, health care providers and employers.

They’ll help plan for how refugees will settle into specific communities as they begin to arrive.

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said the five response teams are being funded with $500,000 from a previously announced $1-million provincial refugee readiness fund.

The other $500,000 will go to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. to help fund its efforts to support refugees and marshall the efforts of various volunteers and agencies.

“We will be ready to receive them,” Bond told reporters in Surrey Wednesday. “British Columbians have expressed in unbelievable ways across this province their generosity and their willingness to be part of the solution.”

The province is also allocating $1.5 million in federal-provincial job grants to support skills training for refugees and to help match them to employers ready to hire new Canadians.

“We think it’s critical,” Bond said. “The most effective way to be successfully integrated is to be employed in our province.”

Another $2.6 million is promised by the province for language training and the Provincial Health Services Authority is hiring and training 30 additional interpreters.

Bond said language training is one of the most urgent needs, adding she does not want refugees to face long wait lists to get into classes to learn English.

Specialized project-specific language skill training is also to ensure, for example, that a Syrian construction worker gets the right English vocabulary to continue the work they previously did.

So far B.C. is expecting mainly privately sponsored refugees – about 200 dispersed across 13 cities by the end of the year.

The province also anticipates receiving up to 3,500 government-assisted Syrian refugees over the longer term.

“Housing is a critical issue,” Bond added. “One of the reasons that we want to look beyond the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is at the availability of long-term affordable housing.”

Federal Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum said the province’s commitments were “music to my ears” and paid tribute to the “huge collective effort of the Sikh community.”

Sikh groups and businessmen are helping provide housing and raise funds, while temples are gathering donations and urging new Syrians to share free meals in their dining halls.

Fruiticana grocery store chain owner Tony Singh is providing refugees free groceries for up to three months.

The Khalsa school system is offering classroom space for Syrians to learn English and won’t charge tuition, one representative said.

One developer is opening up a 12-unit apartment building in Vancouver for Syrians for short-term stays during their orientation. The units are renovated and fully furnished and refugees will get free groceries as well as extras from phone cards and bus tickets to dictionaries and toys for their children.

“I’m hoping this will be the tip of the iceberg,” McCallum said of the growing national drive to welcome and assist the incoming refugees.

Counselling to help traumatized refugees with mental health problems is another area where resources may be stretched, said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart.

“It’s going to tax our communities a little bit,” Stewart predicted. “But you see groups coming together. So this isn’t driving a wedge. This is actually bringing us together as a community.”

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