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      The Government Can’t House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help

      The Government Can’t House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help The Government Can’t House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help The Government Can’t House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help
      The Canadian Press/Chris Young

      Migrant Crisis

      The Government Can’t House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help

      By Tamara Khandaker

      Hundreds of Syrian refugees are living out of hotels, stuck in limbo as the Canadian government scrambles to arrange permanent housing. And individual Canadians are begging to be allowed to help.

      This is the reality that the government promised it would be able to avoid, as it ambitiously tried to meet its goal of resettling 25,000 in a few short months.

      Settlement agencies have been so overwhelmed by the influx of newcomers, that last week four cities—Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, and Vancouver — asked for a temporary hold on the flow of government-sponsored refugees.

      The refugees themselves, meanwhile, are anxious to get their own space, where their children can have room to play.

      Virginia Johnson, a member of a neighbourhood group and a couple of school communities that are privately sponsoring refugees, said she wasn't aware of how government-sponsored refugees were living until she visited a budget hotel in the west end of Toronto about a week ago.

      "They're just in a very fragile state, and they come from very horrific circumstances," she said in an interview, adding that while current conditions aren't dire by any means — most families now have winter jackets and boots, and are well-fed — she's needed to go back, often several times a day, to deliver things like "clothes, laundry detergent, and shampoo."

      Immigration Minister John McCallum has acknowledged that the government may have to put those refugees up in hotels, but said it was the lesser of two evils.

      "If we had all the permanent places a hundred-percent ready upon their arrival, then they would immediately just go there. But we won't necessarily have all the permanent places ready on their arrival, so we have interim lodging," McCallum said at a press conference in December.

      "It could be hotels, or it could be other arrangements, or it could be military bases. I think our preference is to go for the non-military option first, partly for reasons of cost," McCallum said.

      "And, you know, I think it's more pleasant, in a way."

      "And, you know, I think it's more pleasant, in a way."

      But Johnson said the stay isn't particularly pleasant at all.

      "There's a huge difference between those basic needs and feeling cared for and comforted," she said.

      Zaneb Adri Abu-Rukti, who spoke to the CBC through a translator, said she was told her family would have to stay at a hotel for three to four days, but by Monday they were entering day 10 or 11, and they would probably be staying even longer.

      "The problem is that we have kids and we would rather be outside in a settled house than sitting at a hotel," Abu-Rukti said.

      "We feel like our kids are just stuck here. We go into one room, we eat, and then we return to other room and just go to bed. Our kids don't have anywhere to play, nowhere to go out. We feel like we're just trapped in a prison."

      "We feel like our kids are just stuck here. We go into one room, we eat, and then we return to other room and just go to bed. Our kids don't have anywhere to play, nowhere to go out. We feel like we're just trapped in a prison."

      The government has already had to push back its resettlement deadline more than once, as it takes on the gargantuan task of resettling tens of thousands of additional refugees in short notice.

      Meanwhile, private groups sponsoring refugees in those cities say they're ready and willing to help — the federal government just needs to give them the go-ahead.

      John Sewell, former mayor of Toronto and a private sponsor, believes one solution is to pair some of the families living in hotels to civic resettlement programs.

      "If the government said that sponsorship groups...could be matched with those refugee families now in hotels, then all problems would be solved," Sewell told VICE News in an email.

      But according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson Remi Lariviere, starting off in temporary accommodations is routine, and the length of time may vary from a day to several weeks, depending on the local housing market. Either way, refugees immediately have access to essential services and support, he said in an email to VICE News.

      "It is also important to recognize that each Syrian refugee family is unique, and depending on the size of their family and their particular needs, the amount of time they spend in a temporary accommodation facility may vary," Lariviere said. "There is nothing unusual about a stay of several weeks in transitional accommodation."

      In an article for the Globe and Mail, Johnson described her encountered at the hotel with a Syrian father whose daughters were experiencing "respiratory distress."

      Because he didn't speak English, the father couldn't call the settlement agency and get a taxi. Johnson was able to take the family to the hospital, where his daughters were admitted for two nights.

      Johnson said generally the disconnect comes down to the language barrier—most of the refugees can't speak English, and the hotel staff can't speak Arabic.

      "Most of these people have been in camps for a couple of years, and they need to feel hope."

      "Most of these people have been in camps for a couple of years, and they need to feel hope," said Johnson, adding that it's crucial for government-sponsored refugees to feel as welcomed and taken care of, as privately sponsored refugees.

      Johnson and other private sponsors say if the government set them up with refugees to help, things would go more smoothly.

      "It would solve the problem immediately, and there would be another influx, but it would give time for the cities and settlement agencies to organize and staff up," she said. "It also allows private sponsor groups to sponsor more than one family."

      Sewell also believes the arrangement would be mutually beneficial.

      "The refugees would get out of hotels into the housing supplied by the sponsoring groups; the sponsoring groups would be matched with a family, which is why the group came together in the first place; and the government would save all the money it is now spending keeping people in hotels. Win, win, win."

      "The refugees would get out of hotels into the housing supplied by the sponsoring groups; the sponsoring groups would be matched with a family, which is why the group came together in the first place; and the government would save all the money it is now spending keeping people in hotels," he said. "Win, win, win."

      Several private sponsor organizations have already expressed a willingness and desire for such an arrangement, including Office for Refugees at the Archdiocese of Toronto.

      Director Martin Mark explained that the private sponsor program has a substantial network of people to assist with housing and employment, and that volunteers are available 24 hours a day.

      "For every refugee family, we have a committee—a group of people who are trained, well-prepared and anxious to welcome the people."

      Privately-sponsored refugees would have access to services provided by settlement agencies, but would also be connected with citizens who are "friendly, kind, knowledgeable people who know how to manage housing, employment, how to obtain documents, or anything else."

      Last year, his organization put in requests for 2,300 refugees. So far, they have received just 400.

      Meanwhile, new Syrian refugees continue to arrive in Canada every day—as of January 24, the total number of arrivals was at 13,512.

      "The flow from the airplanes is not slowing down at all," McCallum said in a speech last week, referring to the temporary holds. "It's just certain towns or cities need a pause. There will be other places in Canada who will receive the refugees."

      Topics: canada, refugees, syria, justin trudeau, migrant crisis, islamic state, war & conflict

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