On Tuesday evening, a number of Laurier staff and faculty, some who brought along spouses and relatives, set up the Brantford apartment Laurier has rented for one of the refugee families the university has sponsored: a couple and their two kids, one in high school and the other in elementary school.
“We set up furniture in the apartment and the dishware and all of the stuff that has been received through donations,” said Beth Gurney, associate director of communications and public affairs. She is one of 70 volunteers between the Waterloo and Brantford campuses working under Robert Donelson, vice-president of development for Wilfrid Laurier, who is spearheading the project.
Laurier has sponsored three families: two in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and one in Brantford. One family has already arrived in the Waterloo area. The other two have not yet arrived, and it is unknown when they will land.
“We’ll probably have about 48 hours notice as to when they’re coming,” said Gurney, “so we have everything ready for when they do arrive.”
Laurier started campaigning in late October. Since then, the school has raised $81,000, $21,000 more than the goal of $60,000 (to be split evenly between the three families). The extra funds were used to buy items that were needed but did not get donated, and the rest is saved for any unforeseen costs the families may have.
The sponsorship money covers the family for what they need for the first year. But beyond monetary support, the school is looking to support them with education, access to family doctors and building connections.
“We have volunteers on our committee that are Arabic-speaking, which is great because the family, as far as we know, doesn’t speak English, or very little,” said Gurney. Volunteers will assist them in everyday errands such as going to the grocery store and using transit and other amenities.
Laurier has been working closely with YMCA Immigrant Settlement Services in Brantford, which offers programs beyond ESL classes for kids, such as the Youth Fusion Group. Supervised by students from Laurier, YFG engages youth in peer-mentoring activities, volunteer activities, games and recreation.
“We are hoping to engage Syrian refugee youth and provide them with opportunities to get to know other youth, socialize with them and practise their English,” said Arsim Aliu, general manager of settlement services.
He agreed with Gurney that the first priority when the Syrians get here should be to learn English. “In order to get access to services, you will need to communicate. In order to get a job or to pursue education, you need to speak a certain level of English,” explained Aliu.
The adult refugees will be registered in ESL classes offered by the Grand Erie District School Board. YMCA runs various programs that also support the settlement of newcomers to Canada, including an orientation to the community, providing them with information, helping them fill out government and application forms and helping them integrate into Canadian culture and the environment.
A large part of YMCA’s objective is to provide them with connections to people and to help them build relationships.
“It is simplistic to say that just because a newcomer has a job and house means they are settled,” said Aliu. “When they come here, they are leaving behind family and friends and coming to a very different community with no social connection. It is very important for them to connect with community resources so they can rebuild their lives, and often those are religious communities.”
When the refugees go through orientation at the YMCA, they will have an assessment to help find out what their needs are and based on that, they will be provided with information indicating, for example, where certain places of worship are.
All the refugees that are expected in Brantford are privately sponsored refugees by community groups, such as churches. Brantford does not have government-sponsored refugees because there is no reception centre for them. The nearest centre is in Hamilton, which has already received close to 300 refugees.
Both government- and privately sponsored refugees are equally eligible for all the services that are provided both by the YMCA and Laurier.