Earlier this month, Salmon Arm welcomed its first Syrian refugee. Mustafa Zakreet, 24, arrived in the Shuswap community about 10 days — the first of his family, which is one of seven the community is sponsoring.
“They saved my life,” he told the Salmon Arm Observer, when asked what it meant to arrive in Salmon Arm from a refugee camp in Lebanon. “I don’t know how to thank them.”
Salmon Arm has taken the plunge to sponsor Syrian refugees. They started with 15 people at a meeting in October, and by December, 50 people came out, representing 11 churches, two Rotary Clubs and one secular group who called themselves the pagans.
On Thursday, Revelstoke heard about the Salmon Arm experience during a film night hosted by Revelstoke for Refugees, the group that is trying to sponsor a family locally.
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration of the entire community,” said Brian Ayotte, the co-founder of the Salmon Arm Community Group. “We now have seven families being sponsored, and possibly two more.”
In Salmon Arm, the effort has been a community-wide collaboration. One refugee was sponsored by each Rotary Club, one by each of the United, Lutheran and Catholic churches, and three by consortiums.
They’ve reached out to the community to find job opportunities and set up a website where people can register to donate money, time, clothing and furniture. They have established committees to look after things like health care, education, language and employment. “Things have got very well organized and its moving along nicely,” said Ayotte.
Shuswap Settlement Services (SSS) has acted to support the efforts by answering questions from the public at their office.
“We found that answering questions and allaying people’s concerns has gone a long way to ease the idea of bringing families into Salmon Arm,” said Gudrun Malmqvist, from SSS.
She said a lot of people expressed concern the refugees would take jobs and housing from local families — both of which are in short supply. They’ve been trying to allay concerns and do outreach with the community.
“For us it’s been as big a learning curve as it’s been for the sponsoring groups,” she said. “We’re excited to welcome as many people as we’ve been able to get in Salmon Arm.”
Ayotte said it was important for Revelstoke for Refugees to keep the community together. “I think keeping the coalition in Salmon Arm together is very important,” he said. “That means you have to be comfortable with people saying things you don’t like or don’t agree with.”
PHOTO: From left: Kira Sawatzky, Beth Brodie, and Rogan Campbell from the Me 2 We group were on hand at the Revelstoke for Refugees film night to conduct a test. They asked people which two items they would take with them if they were a refugee. The most popular answers were a cellphone, tooth brush, photo album, and food.
In Revelstoke, more than $20,000 has been raised so far, including $1,791.55 from the film night. Revelstoke for Refugees hopes to raise $60,000 to support the first family in order to provide it with a living wage, but they can start the sponsorship process once they have about $30,000 in the bank.
The Alliance Church is acting as the Sponsorship Agreement Holder for the group.
Donations to Revelstoke For Refugees can be made through the Revelstoke Community Foundation website or at the Revelstoke Credit Union.