For the most part, the 45 members of the nine Syrian refugee families who now call Salmon Arm home are doing very well.
But there is still a need for community support.
“There are two essentials; one is English, two is employment, and English comes first,” says Brian Ayotte, chair of the Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition. “Three of the families are now at the end of their sponsorship so they are becoming independent and there is a serious need for low-rent accommodation.”
Ayotte says most communities who are supporting refugees have access to the federal LINC (Language Instruction for New Canadians), but not Salmon Arm. The coalition of eight sponsor groups has had to fundraise to cover the cost of the program.
“We did have funding for three months, but it’s all gone now,” he says. “We really need to give these people 12 months of language education.”
Providing the ESL program along with childcare is costing the coalition $2,500 a month for an instructor and a small stipend women who provide daycare.
“We need to continue that for six months; we thought we had enough money to continue, but the other responsibility the coalition has taken on is to help sponsors with unexpected costs,” he said. “A number of families have been hit with horrendous dental bills and while most dentists have been exceptional about doing pro bono work, there is a limit to what they can do.”
Meanwhile, those who have had access to the yearlong language training are speaking English well and seven of the male refugees are now employed.
Four of them are working full-time in the building trades and three are working part-time as custodians in the school district.
“One young guy, Ahmad Zakreet has impressed people with his skill,” says Ayotte. “He is a plasterer, a craftsman that goes beyond drywalling.”
André Alkaed is working two jobs – night watchman at the mudslide in Sunnybrae and painting with a house-builder in Salmon Arm.
“They’re all well-motivated, they’re just giving ‘er,” adds Ayotte.
Mustafa Zakreet, Salmon Arm’s first Syrian refugee, did well in exams at Okanagan College and has been accepted at UBC Okanagan for the fall semester. He is working at the Pie Company to support himself and his dreams for the future.
One of the families is considering a Syrian food truck and if it is successful, they might consider a restaurant, says Ayotte.
“In other feedback, generally they all love Salmon Arm and they’re not storming off to the big city,” he says. “And the children are thriving, sucking up English and impressing with their soccer skills.”
The Syrian community hosted a fundraising dinner in November and Ayotte says there is talk of another soiree at a lower price and in a larger venue.
“The dinner was a huge success and the women made all the food and were so proud; they were just beaming,” he says, noting that amid the good food and fun was a very sobering moment. “By Skype they connected to Mustafa’s brother in a refugee camp in Lebanon, living under a plastic tarp.”
Members of the refugee coalition are hoping the community will once again respond generously by helping to raise the $9,000 or so needed to keep the ESL program running for the next few months. Donations can be made at St. Joseph’s Church between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, where a receipt will be provided. Donations may also be made to the Syrian Refugee account at SASCU.
Anyone who can offer, or knows of, affordable housing, is asked to call Shuswap Settlement Services at 250 804-2726, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.