Hundreds pledge rooms to unknown refugees

More than 360 offers of personal space in homes for Syrian refugees called unprecedented

Mohammad Al Lwisi

Half of the accommodations being offered up in the Lower Mainland to incoming Syrian refugees are for rooms in the homes of people willing to share their living space with complete strangers.

There are more than 360 such offers of a room in a house across Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley – a response that has stunned Chris Friesen, the settlement services director for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

“I have no words to describe how incredible this is,” Friesen said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before – large numbers of people offering a room in their house or a basement suite in their house that does not have a separate entrance.”

It wouldn’t be unusual if these were privately sponsored refugees whose sponsors are often family or friends already in Canada.

But these would-be hosts are volunteering to open their homes to government-assisted refugees with whom they have no connection.

Some of those living spaces may have separate kitchens and bathrooms, but in other cases the hosts are ready to share.

“What drives people to do that? I don’t know. It’s what they feel they can do,” Friesen said. “Some of these folks are not even wanting to charge the families the rent money that they would receive.”

The volunteers have been getting stern cautions from Friesen’s staff that such a long-term commitment – three months is the minimum – may be too much for them.

“You’ve got to be prepared for all sorts of things – what does it really mean to share your bathroom with somebody,” Friesen said, adding staff point out refugees may be cook unusual foods with different spices.

“We’re trying to scare them off or just to make sure they’re committed,” Friesen said. “And they’re still keen.”

Most of the prospective hosts have undergone an orientation session and nearly all – with virtually no dropouts – are now undergoing criminal record checks ahead of the next stage: being matched with a Syrian. ISSBC staff will also first visit the house to assess suitability.

Rooms in houses account for more than 70 per cent of the offers so far in places like Pitt Meadows, Richmond and Port Moody.

Friesen expects more than 4,000 government-assisted refugees will settle in B.C. next year – way up from a typical 800 – making 2016 likely the busiest refugee settlement year since the arrival of large numbers of Vietnamese boat people in 1980.

As of Wednesday, ISSBC had 45 government-assisted Syrian refugees within eight families staying at its Welcome House refugee reception centre.

At least five additional temporary refugee reception centres are being set up across B.C., including one in Surrey at the Sandman Hotel in Guildford.

Full-time staff are being brought in to each reception centre, Friesen said, and mobile teams will work out of them to help arriving refugees.

A total of nearly 950 offers of housing have come in from 51 communities across B.C., with the largest numbers coming from Vancouver, followed by Surrey, North Vancouver, Langley and Burnaby.

The number of volunteers stepping forward to help with refugee resettlement is also unprecedented.

Nearly 6,000 have now signed up with ISSBC, compared to about 800 recruited in a normal year.

“We’ve been wonderfully overwhelmed,” Friesen said.

The plan is to assemble groups of five or six volunteers who will be matched with each government-assisted Syrian refugee family to provide them social support for up to a year.

For more on the story of Mohammad Al Lwisi’s family (pictured above) read: Future ‘brighter’ for refugee family in Oliver