Karen refugee Zipporah Devadas first came to Canada in 2006.

Langley plans for Syrian refugee families

Langley is organizing for refugees, both government and locally sponsored.

If and when refugees arrive in Langley, they will find a community ready to welcome them.

There are definitely some refugees coming – local churches are sponsoring private refugee settlements. But as far as the government-sponsored settlement of up to 25,000 refugees in Canada, it’s unknown if Langley will play any part.

Regardless, churches, social service organizations, and governments are gearing up for the arrival of a few families or a few hundred.

At a Thursday afternoon meeting at the Douglas Recreation Centre, more than a hundred people representing local organizations gathered to make connections and talk about the early stages of a settlement strategy.

As of the week of Nov. 26, the government was expecting about 400 Syrian refugees to arrive in B.C. by the end of 2015. A total of 1,500 was expected by the end of Feburary. Sanjeev Nand, executive director of Langley Community Services Society, noted that numbers have been changing frequently.

The situation was compared to Langley’s experience in 2007 and 2008 with the Karen people, an ethnic minority from Myanmar who were resettled here after years living in refugee camps in Thailand.

Sharon Kavanagh of the Langley School District noted that while few Syrian refugees have been selected for Langley, the Karen were not expected to make Langley a major destination, either.

Eventually more than 350 Karen refugees settled here, with government assistance and the help of the local community.

Langley has also hosted groups of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s.

New refugees will not know what to expect when they arrive, said Zipporah Devadas, who was one of the first Karen refugees to arrive in the Lower Mainland.

She spent two weeks at Welcome House in Vancouver before moving to Surrey as part of the first group of 60 in 2006.

“In the beginning, everything was so different,” said Devadas. “We didn’t know how to use the money, we didn’t know how to go shopping.”

When they were sent to apartments in Surrey, there was no furniture for the first few days. As Devadas and her brother spoke some English, they had to work hard to help the other refugees.

She spoke of problems early on accessing more education. She spoke too much English to qualify for one program to improve her skills, for example.

Organizers of last week’s event emphasized that they have to identify the resources that are already here and make sure that people arriving can find and use them.

Meanwhile, some privately sponsored refugees could be here within a few weeks.

Eleanor McComb of the Willoughby Church, is a  volunteer, who suggested four years ago that the church do something for refugees. Since she spoke up, she found herself as the informal leader of the church’s refugee ministry.Eleanor McComb is a volunteer with a local church working to sponsor refugee families.

In the past, the church has helped refugees from Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran. But it had been a dozen years since the church had done refugee outreach. Since the program began again in recent years, they have settled a family who had opposed the military regime in Myanmar, among others.

In the next few weeks McComb and the volunteers are expecting a family of five, including three adult children. Aside from ages, they know almost nothing about the family – religion, ethnic group, or what they have been through in Syria.  The family is not part of the government quota of 25,000.

The church volunteers are taking on a lot of tasks: getting the family SIN cards, setting up bank accounts, establishing interim federal health care. On the material side, they need to find a three-bedroom space for rent, preferably in Langley City. Parishoners will bring donated furniture, household goods, and food to fill the fridge and cupboards.

They will also have created a network of families on which the new arrivals can rely.

Two sets of families, one for this refugee family, a second for another group expected soon, will act as the “settler, the enfolders, the community for any new people,” said McComb.

Community is one of the most important aspects of the process, she said. Goods are relatively easy to obtain.

“We are a wealthy country, and I think we can afford to share,” McComb said.

The purpose of a church is to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, she said.


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