Community pools money, resources to welcome new immigrants to Surrey
Sunday, September 18, 2016

On a nondescript block in North Surrey, in a former halal meat market sandwiched between a convenience store and an autobody shop, a new community is taking shape.

Inside, there are about 80 people squeezed into a space that would comfortably hold about half that number. The adults chat loudly over coffee and baklava; the children — who represent about half the crowd —shriek with laughter and scream with rage in equal measure. There are long tables filled with food — pakoras, samosas, two kinds of hummus, pita bread, fruit. The potato salad and cheese and broccoli mini quiches remain largely untouched.

Welcome to the communal living room of Guildford’s burgeoning Syrian-Canadian community. The space, officially a refugee and immigrant welcome centre, is open to anyone and everyone, organizers hasten to say. But unlike other immigrant outreach agencies, which receive the bulk of their funding from various levels of government, this centre’s construction was funded entirely by the local community and it is staffed by volunteers.

Arabic-speaking volunteers at the centre will help clients fill out government forms, such as B.C. Housing applications, apply for post-secondary education, or find a doctor or dentist who speaks their language, says director Samir Youssef. Later this month, the centre will hold its first English classes, which will be gender-segregated and have child care available. In a few months’ time, when clients become more confident in English, volunteers will help clients create resumés and apply for jobs, Youssef says. He also plans to bring in speakers on topics such as Canadian laws and child rearing.

Many recently arrived immigrants are deeply concerned about relatives still living in war zones or refugee camps, so another purpose of the centre is to help connect these individuals with community groups willing to privately sponsor their relatives, Youssef added.

There are other agencies in Surrey doing similar work, acknowledges assistant director Kevin Thiessen, but the influx of Syrian refugees into the city has been so large, those agencies cannot keep pace with demand.

Surrey received close to half — 44 per cent — of the nearly 1,700 government-assisted refugees who landed in B.C. between early November 2015 and the end of May, according to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. An equal number are expected to arrive before the end of this year.

“When we … heard the promise of the Trudeau government to bring in 25,000 people, we knew Surrey would be a very popular destination. We knew that this would be a key location where we, as Canadians, should help welcome people,” Thiessen says. “We’re not trying to take away from anyone else, but we know that there’s an overwhelming need for one city. So if we can help, let’s do a good job of it.”

It cost about $100,000 to transform what used to be a warehouse for the autobody shop next door into the Welcome Centre, Thiessen estimates. Many people donated their labour or offered supplies at cost.

The building and operating costs are covered by local individuals and church groups who wish to remain anonymous, Youssef says. A handful of Canadian-born members of these groups were on hand for the opening Tuesday evening, which was also a celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha.

Youssef emphasized, however, that the centre is non-religious.

“We will call this our home,” said Bassam Sua’Ifan, a Syrian refugee who arrived in January, through a translator. 

“Our religion is humanity.”

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Source: The Vancouver Sun / Tara Carman

Photo credit: Mark Yuen ("Bassam Sua'Ifan is a volunteer who is serving food to guests at the Refugee and Immigrant Welcome Centre in Surrey, B.C.")