How New West is preparing to welcome refugees

Yesterday I went to a public meeting hosted by New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy and MP Peter Julian in the lovely downstairs space of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union on E. Columbia Street.

Being overwhelmed with enquiries about how to help, Darcy and Julian realized holding a public meeting might make sense and they cobbled that together in less than a week.

They were expecting maybe 50 people to show up and the room was packed, no more chairs left, at a crowd of I’m guessing about 250.

It was good to learn of the facts presented by Andrea Canales, Manager of Settlement Services for Immigrant Services Society of BC.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There are 52 privately sponsored refugees who have been approved and are arriving in New West by December 31, 2015.
  • Privately sponsored refugees are sponsored by family members or groups of at least five people who are agreeing to be responsible for them and their welfare. Find out more here.
  • There are two types of refugees: There are privately sponsored refugees and there are government assisted refugees or GARS.
  • By the end of February 2016, in total, 25,000 privately sponsored and government assisted refugees, will be here in Canada.
  • New Westminster will receive about 200-250 refugees in total. Coquitlam, New West and Vancouver each will receive 40% of refugees coming to BC. Surrey will receive 25%.
  • Twenty-five percent of the refugees will be school-aged children and youth.
  • I didn’t learn this, I already knew it, but it was apparent to me that at least one person on city council who should know it, didn’t. Refugees and immigrants are not the same classification. Immigrants have a choice as to whether they want to move here and can be accepted. Refugees have been designated that way because their lives are endangered and they do not have a choice about leaving their countries. Do not confuse refugees with immigrants. Refugees do not designate themselves that way. The UNHCR or UN Refugee Agency (working with Canada) designates people as refugees based on criteria. Do not speak of refugees and immigrants as if they are the same designation. They are not.
  • In terms of funding, a single refugee (one person) would receive $734 a month and that includes money to pay for housing.
  • A family of four would receive $1,300 a month.
  • These amounts are the reason why it is imperative that people who have housing or extra space that is decent and livable, offer it for refugees in cities where affordable housing, as we know, is at crisis levels.
  • Refugees will be arriving every two weeks and typically they arrive at a place called Welcome house in Downtown Vancouver. They are driven by taxi from the airport to Welcome house. Once there they meet with Refugee Assistance Program Counsellors and they are housed for two weeks. They are inundated with information on services and supports and it is important to find them housing within two weeks because after that, new refugees will begin to arrive and the upstairs space will need to be turned around every two weeks.
  • At some point donations of furniture will be important. Those needs have yet to be established but once they are, the furniture will be located in a specific place. At this point, the Gurdwara temple in Queensborough is investigating the possibility of storage space for New Westminster based refugees.
  • Normally when refugees are flown to Canada, they are expected to repay what is called a transportation loan. The average repayment is about $9,000. According to Ms. Canales, ISS Manager of Settlement, the default has typically been about 2%. These refugees will not have to pay this transportation loan. The federal government has made that decision.
  • The refugees will receive basic medical insurance through the federal government called the Interim Federal Health Plan.
  • The Greater Vancouver Foodbank Society operates the New West Food Bank as well so any donations made to them could be specified to go to New West.
  • There is also a Muslim Food Bank that exists to provide culturally specific and appropriate food.
  • The New West Chamber of Commerce is working to create a welcoming space and to educate other employers because new refugees eventually do become employed and even start up small businesses.
  • It takes an entire community to support and welcome refugees including the School District, the New West Public Library, Lower Mainland Purpose Society, local faith based groups and churches, the New Westminster Islamic Society and many more. I did not know that there is an Islamic newspaper in New West.
  • If you would like to donate in New West make your cheque payable to Lower Mainland Purpose Society (LIP Refugee Fund) at 40 Begbie Street, New West, V3M 3L9.
  • If you want to get involved with ISS to provide money, housing, services, ESL, Counselling, products and services, you can visit their website at crisis@iss.bc.org or call 1-844-447-9742.
  • If you want to contact the school district in New Westminster to ask about volunteering, the person to contact is Belinda Scott.
  • The New Westminster offices of Immigrant Services Society are located on the second floor of Royal City Centre Mall.
  • When we speak of refugees, the current Syrian refugee crisis is just one part of an ongoing process in which refugees from all over the world are continuing to arrive from other countries as they have been prior to this crisis.

Vancouver, I need a housing hug. Work with me!

KizmitWent to the really great marketing ploy, Gesamtkunstwerk (be careful how you pronounce it), to listen to Jeff Derksen, a poet and English prof at SFU speak to the future of the city and how social housing might be re-imagined in Vancouver.  Enjoyed some wine and a very tasty pretzel bun dipped in grainy hot mustard too. Thank you very much.

The first thing I learned, or had reinforced, given that I already sort of knew it, is that if you want to market something, give it a really cool name that’s hard to pronounce for everyone who isn’t fluent in German.  Get some intelligent, in-the-know and interesting individuals as speakers. Put it in a stark space. Include an exhibit with architectural drawings and small models. Turn it into a “go-to” event. They, whoever they are specifically, did a really great job at putting this on.

Derksen was comparing the approach to social housing in Vienna versus Vancouver. What I’m saying here is my bastardization of what he said. But it will give you the idea.  They actually have a will to do social housing in Vienna which ranks as the top place it the world for livability.

In Vancouver, social housing only ever seems to gets imagined in a very unimaginary way and always in relation to those on the lowest rung, (actually, they’re not even on a rung, they’ve dropped onto the street). In contrast, in Vienna, 60% of people live in some form of subsidized housing and Vienna is ranked as the No. 1 livable city in the world. Gee. I wonder if there’s a correlation? Ya think?

There is imagination in Vienna around social housing that is apparently lacking in Vancouver. Or given the gold mine of creativity that exists here, I guess it’s really just the will that’s lacking. Derksen did seem to be treading lightly of course, given that the people hosting him have the main goal of selling more condos.  Specifically at a cool looking place called Vancouver House.  Interesting but not quite as exciting for those of us who can barely afford the furniture in the lobby of new said building when it’s done, let alone a whole condo in an architectural sculpture. And just to be clear, I’m not knocking it. I just want Vancouver to provide more options based on a spectrum of bank accounts.

Sometimes when you live in Vancouver and purchasing a place to live is not a option, you begin to feel like it’s normal to be on the outside looking in all the time. Like that’s the way God wanted it.  The chosen ones are in condos. You’re not. Oh well. And it’s not that I even desire to live in a condo. I’d rather live in a yurt or a couple of shipping containers that have been architecturally renovated, one arranged like a block on top of the other and in a little sunny clearing in a forest. That’s way more my style.  A condo does not factor into my dreams.

It isn’t until you go to a talk like this that you begin to think, hey, just a minute, who made the rules anyway? Who said that the only thing dictating everything has to be money?  Is it enough for a city to receive all the love? Doesn’t it have to give some back? This unrequited love thing might have gone too far in Vancouver.  Is there any other city in the world that’s as self loving as Vancouver? If so, let me know where. I don’t ever want to go there. Is it enough to love a city or should we also expect that the city might give more of us, proportionately, some love back? This is sort of what Jeff Derksen asked. Read his essay on it (unless you’re over 50 and then the teeny, weeny print will mean you won’t because it will be too hard to read).

While you’re at it. Take a look at this short description of the approach to social housing in Vienna where 5,000 to 7,000 social housing units built each year and that equals 85 percent of the new housing stock there annually. It’s a  big fat bear hug if not outright love. It’s commitment to everyone, rich, poor, elderly, youth.

So, that’s the long way of saying what kind of city would you rather live in. Exclusive or Inclusive?

* The photo above, taken on Salt Spring, is the entrance to the house behind a very creative little coffee place/gallery called Kizmit that’s kind of its own little exhibit, Salt Spring style.