Since January 2016, 45 members of nine Syrian refugee families have come to Salmon Arm.
Two of the those families have since moved on to be closer to relatives in other Canadian communities.
But members of the seven remaining families are staying put, says Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition founder and chairperson Brian Ayotte, who is extremely proud of the way the refugees have been welcomed and supported.
Between the coalition, sponsoring groups and the greater community, Salmon Arm raised more than $300,000 to support the families.
“They’re extremely happy, they love it here; people here are friendly and helpful and they feel quite accepted and safe,” he says, noting many residents have been very welcoming and often say hello or wave to the Syrians when they pass them on the street.
Four of the men are fully employed, three more recent arrivals have had some part-time work and a couple of others have a few prospects on the go.
Ayotte says the coalition is grateful to SCIP (Shuswap Construction Industry Professionals) and to School District #83 for providing employment.
With the help of $26,000 in private donations from the School District #83 branch of CUPE, the Shuswap-North Okanagan Division of Family Practice and substantial private donations, refugees have had access to ESL programs through the coalition.
Ayotte says the bulk of the money went to ESL training because, unlike many other Canadian communities, Salmon Arm was not eligible for federal funding.
“They considered Salmon Arm to be too small, even though we had 45 people here,” he said. “But as of this month, the feds are paying for it, which means the coalition can pay for childminding for a longer period of time.”
Ayotte says ESL lessons are essential, not a luxury and that refugee needs in order of priority are English lessons, ability to drive and jobs – in that order.
Coalition funds were also used to to put four men through custodial care training, a couple of other job-training programs and driving lessons.
“They came without papers, but one did have papers saying he was professional driver with the Syrian army,” says Ayotte, noting most had to flee from their homes with almost no notice.
Two of the women have passed the Food Safe exam and are working on developing a plan to make Syrian foods available in the community.
“We don’t know if it will be hummus at the farmers’ markets, catering, or even a restaurant eventually,” he says. “They are excited about it but are being cautious; they just got it (certification) two weeks ago so it’s a work in progress.”
The Syrian children are doing very well in school and learning English faster than their parents. One of the keys to their acceptance is the youngsters’ soccer skills, Ayotte says.
Salmon Arm first welcomed Mustafa Zakreet, who had been working on his engineering degree in Syria. He is now attending Okanagan College to continue his studies and is doing very well, says Ayotte.
One of his brothers and his young family remain in a refugee camp in Lebanon and Zakreet’s sponsoring committee is working very hard get the family to Salmon Arm.
“It’s getting quite tense now, there are too many Syrians there and growing violence,” Ayotte said, noting the process could be a long one as Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada has restricted the number of Syrian refugees being allowed into the country. “I think all three families are members of extended families that are already here.”
While it might be re-energized in the future, the coalition is in the process of winding down.
“We will have completed our job and drained our bank account at end of year,” he said, pointing out most of the families are beyond the one-year coalition sponsorship term. “We’re still working at finding employment for the three remaining men.”
Ayotte has high praise for the various sponsoring groups, who, not only raised more than $300,000, they spent an “incredible numbers of volunteer hours” driving kids to school, taking refugees shopping and more.
“It has been a fantastic effort on the part of the people of Salmon Arm,” he says, noting roughly $32,000 had to be raised for each family. “I keep coming back to the same point; I have never in my 37 years here seen anything like the way all the churches have come together.”