Help pours in for Syrian refugees in Calgary, despite economic woes

CALGARY - Naheed Gilani's investments have been pummelled by the crude price collapse, but the Calgarian says he hasn't hesitated for a moment to contribute thousands of dollars to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

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"My reasoning was, 'we can't afford to wait for the next person who might be in a better economic condition than I am,"' said the 35-year-old, who is part of a group of five Calgarians sponsoring a widow and her two young children.

Calgary is expected to take in up to 1,300 refugees in the coming weeks, though final figures have not been pinned down. Of those, 502 are through private sponsorships - one of the highest numbers for Canadian cities, according to federal government figures. All this as mass layoffs in the oilpatch become a regular occurrence and year-end bonuses are slashed.

Gilani, born into a comfortable life in Canada to East African immigrant parents, said it's important to put Calgary's economic woes into perspective.

"I just think people get so used to their high level of Canadian standards that we're not as resilient in the face of a downturn as we should be. People don't know what resiliency really is," he said.

Stephen Scott, an engineer who was laid off in October, said he has no qualms about Calgary taking in refugees.

"I'm not going to be looking for the same jobs they are," he said. "If you had a family living in Syria, you'd want to get out of there. So we need to give these people some opportunity. When we were born in North America and the western countries, it's like we won the lottery."

Even though a light-rail transit station in Calgary was scrawled with anti-refugee graffiti earlier this month, that intolerance isn't representative of the vast majority of what Mayor Naheed Nenshi says he's witnessed in the city.

He estimates that 95 per cent of the feedback he gets on the refugee issue is from Calgarians clamouring to help.

"But there is a little undercurrent and people are saying 'Look - if you're being so helpful to these refugees, what about people who are hurting right now?' And that's a fair question," he said.

"But of course let's remember that folks that are hurting right now have access to a huge raft of resources, whether it's (employment insurance) or social programs or housing in our current community, whereas the folks who are coming are fleeing unspeakable violence and trauma and don't have anything."

In Calgary, social housing will not go to refugees, as waiting lists for those units are already long.

Rather, Nenshi said, it will be up to the private sector to find homes for the refugees. Local real estate firms have already offered discounts and free rent for refugee families and Nenshi said he's even hearing from citizens eager to offer up basements or spare rooms.

There are some common misunderstandings about the economic impact the refugees will have on the city of 1.2 million, Nenshi added.

"Last year, with the economic downturn well in play, we added 3,000 new Calgarians every month," he said. "To absorb another 1,000 people, half of whom are children, over the course of the next couple of months, even in a time of economic downturn - in a city this size, it shouldn't have any impact really whatsoever on individuals."

Nor should Calgary experience any hardship from 300 to 400 refugees entering the job market in "dribs and drabs" as they complete their language training and update professional accreditation, he added, and the city's social services won't be unduly strained.

"We normally bring in 1,000 refugees a year in any given year. So certainly we're looking at doubling that in a shorter period of time, but those resources are available, whether you're talking about English classes or trauma counsellors or mental health folks or the school boards being able to welcome these kids into their community."

Community organizer Saima Jamal said looking for a job isn't a top priority for refugees when they first arrive.

"The first six months, you just focus on language training," she said. "They're just right now getting their feet wet and entering a new country."

Jamal, who has been working to match Syrian families with sponsor groups, said the support she's seen has been "overwhelming."

"If one person is faltering, somebody else is always picking up," she said.

Many Calgarians unable to put thousands of dollars toward private sponsorships are still finding ways to help within their budget, said Jamal. That could include taking a family shopping for winter clothing or on a day trip to Banff.

D.D. Coutts, manager of communications for the Calgary Food Bank, says the arrival of refugees will add to the already increased demand caused by the downturn.

Preparations are under way, especially getting pantry hampers ready with the basics like flour, sugar, salt and pepper - "that initial kitchen set-up," as Coutts puts it.

"That amount of people will not impact us enormously. We always have new immigrants coming in, always have new Albertans coming to the province."


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