Without proper resources and support, some are warning our already strained city will see an influx of homelessness and crime
FIFTH IN A SERIES: In Surrey, 40 per cent of residents are immigrants. With this series, we look at the challenges they face as they struggle to build a new life here.
SURREY — In a modest building just off of King George Boulevard in Whalley is Amos Kambere’s Umoja Compassion Society.
The organization, dedicated to helping refugees and immigrants integrate into Canadian society, is his pride and joy.
Since founding Umoja in 2002, he’s worked with newcomers to help them adjust to their new life, something he experienced first-hand 25 years ago as an immigrant.
“I came here with four children. That inspired me, that gave me questions – what about others coming to this country?” he asked.
“How are they helped?”
He decided to become part of the solution and was even recognized by the City of Surrey last year, receiving the Heart of the City Award for his efforts.
Despite his passion for helping newcomers, he is among many concerned about the thousands of Syrian refugees expected to arrive in Metro Vancouver soon.
Kambere said the tragedy in Paris that took the lives of more than 100 people last week was a “wake-up call” at a time when Canada is opening its doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year.
His concern stems from reports that at least one of the Paris terrorists may have had a Syrian passport.
“We’ve got to be extremely careful when it comes to opening our doors. We need to be extremely vigilant,” Kambere stressed.
“We have all this freedom that we enjoy here. It’s very easy for bad elements to take advantage of those freedoms. We have to be careful of screening them when they come in.”
Kambere said refugee processing times can sometimes take years because of the screening protocols.
“There’s a process to go through, so 25,000 in a span of two months? We’ve got to be extremely careful.”
Roughly 3,000 of the Syrian refugees are expected to land in Metro Vancouver in the next several weeks – a promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the election campaign – and a third of those are expected to land in Surrey.
To handle that kind of influx, Kambere urges the government to step up with more funding.
He said current funding is “absolutely not enough,” adding, “the government is not compensating us.”
Kambere says while he has the people to run the programs, he will need more dollars to pay staff once the new refugees land.
Asked if he expects more funding to arrive in time to help, he said, “No,” adding, “Right now we don’t have a clue.”
Kambere predicts a variety of social issues will worsen in Surrey if the refugees aren’t supported properly upon arrival.
“These people are coming with mental health issues,” Kambere said.
“We already deal with trauma in the African community and the Middle Eastern community, now they’re adding the Syrian refugees…. If there’s not enough resources to help them, you’re going to see a lot of homelessness. You’re going to see a lot of disgruntled refugees. With the younger people, you’re probably going to see an increase in crime.”
The non-profit offers a variety of programming, much of it geared toward parents and youth to avoid such problems, but without the resources to deliver that programming, Kambere worries what will happen.
He noted the gunfire on local streets this year were linked by police to Somalian and South Asian street gangs.
“When people come and we’re not ready for them, we don’t have enough tools, we don’t have enough funding, we’ll be looked at as failing them,” he said.
“We need the resources to begin to get them before they end up on the streets,” Kambere stressed. “Let’s look after them, get them education, that will give them school and employment, and settlement.”
Watts: If we rush it, we fail
Former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who is just settling into her new role as Conservative MP for South Surrey-White Rock, echoes Kambere’s comments.
She says bringing in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year is problematic. The Tories had committed to 10,000.
“Things have shifted on the global front given what’s occurred in Paris and all over the world. The screening process, as good as it is, needs to be tightened up even more,” said Watts.
“Things can’t be rushed. I get that it was a campaign promise, bringing all these people in immediately, but we have to do due diligence.”
Along the campaign trail, Watts was criticized for flyers about terrorism abroad and ISIS. She was accused of fear mongering.
“I wouldn’t have delivered it that way,” Watts said of the message, insisting it came from party headquarters, “but the issue is important. It has to be discussed and we should be aware. That’s not to say you want to instil fear in people, but you want to make sure the issue is on people’s radar.
“These people are all connected and we’ve seen what ISIS can do. They lined 24 people up on a beach and beheaded them all. It’s building. And it’s out there.”
Like Kambere, Watts isn’t just concerned about the threat of attack here at home, but also of how the thousands of newcomers will adjust to life here.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said, referencing her time as mayor for the city that took the largest number of refugees in the province during her tenure.
“There’s so many issues when you bring families – and usually they’re large families with a number of kids – so you’ve got issues where the kids have witnessed extreme violence, they’ve lived in camps, they’re not formalized in terms of language, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical and mental health, all of those things.
“There’s a myriad of things going on, so if you don’t have a co-ordinated approach it becomes significantly problematic.”
Watts said at the end of the day, the goal is to make sure these families and children succeed, but added, “you can’t just place them and leave them to your own devices.”
Support needs to come from the federal government, she said, in the realm of funding and manpower.
“That’s number one in terms of the refugee piece,” said Watts. “If you don’t have the resources to deal with this influx, then you’re going to fail. And that commitment has to be ongoing, it’s not just a commitment for a couple years.”
Options Community Services Society is another organization that also hopes more funding is about to trickle down.
Connie Hong is senior manager of the organization’s settlement and integration programs. Through settlement services and a refugee program called Moving Ahead, Options served more than 1,000 immigrants last year.
Asked if the organization is ready for the hundreds of refugees, she said, “I don’t think anybody is ready because the number is such a huge number.
“We have limited resources,” she added. “Hopefully the federal government will give us more money, because our new contract begins next April.”
But she said the organization is well-equipped to help refugees on a number of fronts. As a mainstream organization, Options offers programs that go beyond just settlement-specific services like housing and language services, but also in areas such as domestic violence, mental health, and children and family services.
“You name it, we have it here,” she explained. “As a multi-service agency, we can do wrap-around supports for these people.”
The organization is already being contacted by people in the community who want to volunteer to help refugees.
So for now, they’re working with what they have and hope the public will continue to offer to volunteer with things like participating in informal English classes or even just offering friendship or mentorship.
Meanwhile, the Surrey School District is bracing for the refugees to arrive. An estimated 500 or more of those arriving are expected to enter Surrey’s school system, and they will all enter through the Welcome Centre.
It’s never dealt with an influx of this magnitude, said district spokesman Doug Strachan.
“The most refugee families the Welcome Centre has processed in a short period of time in the past, since establishment in 2009, was 50 to 80,” said Strachan, adding, “we are looking to the two senior levels of government to provide additional resources.”
While there are some available school spaces in Guildford and North Surrey, Strachan noted schools in Clayton, South Newton and South Surrey are already jam-packed.
Meetings between support agencies and the district will begin this week, he stated.
“We’ve done all we can to prepare until more concrete information comes from the higher governments,” Strachan said.
Support coming, Dhaliwal says
Surrey-Newton Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal said the government is sticking to its commitment of 25,000 Syrian refugees admitted to Canada by the end of the year. He assured supports will be put in place, and that proper screening will take place.
“The attacks in Paris and Beirut show us that all cities and countries across the globe can be at risk from terrorism, and we must be aware and vigilant. I am concerned about extremists attacking our way of life like every other citizen who witnessed the loss of innocent lives,” said Dhaliwal. “The threat of terrorism is real.”
He said briefings will happen this week with provinces and the city regarding resources that will be made available, noting the Liberals committed to $100 million this fiscal year to support processing, sponsoring and settling the refugees.
Dhaliwal said more details will be made public in the coming weeks.
“Canadians elected a Liberal government that committed to accepting 25,000 refugees because compassion is at the core of Canada’s spirit,” Dhaliwal said.
“This will be done by balancing humanitarian need with taking every precaution to ensure the safety and security of our country.”