3.A Refugee Sponsorship in a Rural Community
Location: Smithers, British Columbia
Type of Sponsoring Group: Group of Five
Number of Sponsors in Group: Five
Sponsoring Since: February 2016
Sponsoring Group Description: Nurse, teacher, fire protection officer, realtor, occupational therapist, office administrator, counsellor, biologist, and lawyer.
Number of Refugees Sponsored: Two families sponsored. Family A has two parents with three children. Family B has two parents with four children, including a new baby born in Canada.
Interviewee: Pauline Mahoney
Did you sponsor someone you know (e.g. friend, family) or someone you did not previously know?
Family A is related to a family already living in Smithers.
We did not previously know Family B. We sponsored Family B through Canada’s Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program
What was it like sponsoring someone you did not know?
It was a very good experience.
Are there any special considerations for a group sponsoring refugees to come live in a small, rural community?
Small towns can be very welcoming, open, and resourceful. It was easy to meet with social supports and plan for our newcomers’ arrival. Local businesses/individuals were generous in their help with funding and donations; e.g., a local dentist provided free care, and an optometrist offered to assist with eye exams. We were also able to arrange both formal and volunteer language training services.
We recommend that groups contract the services of a professional interpreter and not rely on Arabic speakers within the community. Volunteers, while meaning well, do not always interpret correctly and can add their own biases. We had regular meetings with a trained interpreter over the phone.
How do you prepare a small community to welcome refugees? How do you resolve any tensions or apprehensions?
In the summer/autumn of 2015, there was a lot of media coverage on the Syrian refugee crisis, which reached many in our community. We also hosted a “Get to know Syria” night with food, belly dancing, a slide show/talk on Syria and a display of Syrian items (clothes, coffee pots, hookah, cups, etc.). We included presentations on the refugee sponsorship process and community plans for resettlement.
We made presentations to schools and other community groups, with an emphasis on empathy and what might feel different to newcomers and why. And finally, we hosted an “Introduction to Islam” evening with three Mosque leaders from the closest Islamic community (about four hours away).
Posters around town included my contact details so people could reach me to ask questions. We also keep people informed via email, if they have joined our mailing list.
How do you work with other vulnerable groups in the community who may perceive sponsored refugees as receiving disproportionate benefits?
The community outreach we did (described above) was very helpful. We also held specific meetings with First Nations (Canada’s Indigenous peoples) leaders to discuss any issues. There was an official First Nations welcoming and public picnic about six months after the two families arrived in Smithers.
What are some of the challenges in rural sponsorships?
Our top challenges were:
1. Work opportunities: Family A is a professional couple with university degrees. Finding work within their fields of expertise is a challenge. Family B has lower education and literacy and arrived with no English skills, which presented separate challenges in finding suitable employment.
2. A lack of Arabic community (the closest one is a four hour drive away) to help build the families’ community support networks.
What was the experience of arrival and the refugees’ first weeks like?
It was a mix of excitement, relief, anticipation, and anxiety. We had a strong desire to reassure the newcomers that they were welcome, that we were committed to their well-being, and we wanted them to know they were safe. We also recognized how terribly confused, bewildered, and frightened these families might be – not to mention exhausted! The initial weeks were harder for Family B as Family A had relatives in Smithers.
The first few weeks were intense and busy. There was so much work to do, but our preparation helped ease the way as we knew who to contact and had completed as much paperwork in advance as we could.
How did you find accessing settlement services in your community?
Excellent. We met well before the newcomers arrived to ensure we knew what could be offered and how to access it. The settlement agency appreciated the early contact so they could plan and prepare as well.
What was the best part of your sponsorship experience?
The profound experience of “walking alongside” a family as they struggled to adapt and adjust to a new life forced upon them.