Trying to find their place

Refugees also struggle in red-hot Metro Vancouver housing market

Syrian children enjoy sunshine as they begin adjusting to new land.

Syrian children enjoy sunshine as they begin adjusting to new land.

Imagine packing your family of 13  – into a three-bedroom apartment – assuming you can find one in Maple Ridge for $875 per month.

The people helping Syrian refugees settle into Maple Ridge say the federal government is providing housing allowances that will see these new Canadians pushed into the Lower Mainland’s worst neighbourhoods.

“Housing is the biggest hurdle the newcomers are facing,” said Ahmed Yousef of the Ridge Meadows Islamic Society.

He notes that the rate for a single adult is just $380 per month.

“You cannot rent a hole in the wall for that,” he asserts.

As the first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees settles into Canada, the housing allowance is an obvious barrier to them becoming independent, or to more Syrians fleeing their war-torn country finding refuge in southwestern B.C.

Yousef said he chose to bring his family to Maple Ridge when he immigrated from Egypt, and his group is looking to bring more Syrian families here, if they can find ways to raise funds for housing.

“It’s a great place to raise a family,” he said.

He estimated the cost of renting a modest house in Maple Ridge at $1,800 to $2,000, and local realtors will be helping to find suitable homes.

“There is a sizable dependence on communities and local people to step in and help them,” said Yousef. “But the families have been very, very pleased with the arrangements here.”

Gordy Robson is a Maple Ridge city councillor who has taken in the aforementioned  family of 13, who have rented a house on his property. He also has another family of six living on the main floor of his house.

“They’re fitting in absolutely, incredibly well. They’re a joy to have around,” said Robson.

The councillor, former mayor and onetime vice-president of the Edmonton Oilers has a new title – his new guests call him Mukhtar. In Arabic, it literally means “chosen,” and refers to the head of a village or neighbourhood.

Some of Robson’s guests know only slightly more English than he does Arabic.

“There’s definitely a language barrier, but we’re good at pantomime now,” he said.

‘Mukhtar’ Robson, his wife Mary and their sons have put their hearts into the job of welcoming the Syrian families.

Will has been driving them wherever they need to go, whether to shop, to attend language classes at Riverside, or to try and get their own driver’s licences.

And Gord Jr. is organizing fundraising to provide housing. Most of his fundraising is corporate donations, but they are considering special events. The Robsons calculate the difference between the government’s subsidy and the market price at $10,000 per year, and they aim to raise funds in order to bring in more families in the future.

“The difference between government funding and the (rental) market is huge,” said Robson.

Some refugees have been sponsored by churches and community groups, but those sponsored by the federal government accept what amounts to a welfare subsidy.

Across Canada the story is the same – about half of refugees are still in temporary housing, and the issue is making headlines. Refugees staying in a Hamilton hotel were recently forced to vacate to make room for Garth Brooks fans who had booked rooms in advance.

On Tuesday Immigration Minister John McCallum said phase one has been a success – to get 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. Phase two is to find them permanent housing, employment and language training.

The Maple Ridge community overall has been welcoming, said Robson.

Maple Ridge Chrysler donated the use of a van.

Workwear World offered thousands of dollars worth of clothing

Local doctors have offered health care treatment – outside of MSP if necessary.

And the school community at Webster’s Corners has taken their eight new students under wing. They just started in February, and already the children’s language skills are blooming. They were actually disappointed that spring break was going to take them out of class.

“They’re so grateful,” said Robson.

“These guys are going to be fine.”