Minelle Mahtani is a talk show host for a Vancouver radio station who usually confines herself to commenting on the news. But learning of the struggles of newly-arrived Syrian refugees in a nearby hotel propelled her out the door on the weekend.
Dozens of Canadians responded to recent stories in The Globe and Mail with offers to help the newcomers overcome some of the challenges they face to putting down roots in Canada. With her toddler in her arms, Ms. Mahtani talked her way past the protective hotel staff to knock on the door of one of the guest rooms, determined to meet one of the families and deliver direct assistance.
"You can hear the kids laughing and playing and when they open the door, there are five beautiful children beaming up at me," she recounted in an interview Monday. She handed over an envelope with cash, along with a colouring book and markers. One boy approached her two-and-a-half-year-old son. "He touched his face so gently – they connected on a heart-to-heart level."
Jenny Kwan, the New Democratic Party immigration critic, said her office has been inundated with offers from Canadians in response to news stories about the acute needs of the refugees. She's heard from employers with job offers, landlords with rental accommodation, and tutors wanting to provide free English lessons.
Ms. Kwan met with some of the new arrivals and told them of the supportive offers.
"They are so very thankful for the response from Canadians, from the incredible welcome when they first arrived and now the way so many Canadians are stepping up on their own to offer support," Ms. Kwan said. "They know they are not alone. That's who we are. This has highlighted the spirit of Canadians."
Fifteen people contacted The Globe offering financial assistance to Ebraheem Abo-Khoroj, a Syrian-born refugee who arrived in Vancouver on Nov. 17 but did not receive the paperwork he requires to work or study in Canada. He was told he needed to pay $550 for the documents that are supposed to be offered to refugees on their arrival.
The federal Liberal commitment to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees before March 1 has overwhelmed service providers in some communities. Federal contractors responsible for resettlement services in Vancouver and Ottawa have told the government they cannot accept any new refugees until they are able to process the hundreds of new arrivals that are still in temporary housing. They say the government has been slow to process cheques needed to help the families move to their permanent homes.
The pause is expected to last a week and applies only to government-assisted refugees, not privately sponsored individuals.
The arrival of thousands of refugees in the span of a few weeks to settlement centres such as Vancouver has left many Syrian families in temporary accommodation where they cannot access community supports and schools.
Ms. Kwan said she is pleased that the federal government has taken steps to address the backlog by allowing new contractors to help boost capacity, after the MP for Vancouver East raised concerns about the gaps in service that had left some families in limbo. Many have not been told about available medical care, and there are long waiting lists for English language classes.
She noted that the plight of Mr. Abo-Khoroj touched a nerve. "He didn't get his proper documentation when he came through the Welcome House. So many people are offering to pay his fee, so he can get on with his life. It's just overwhelming."
The B.C. government has backed the ambitious refugee plan, saying the province can accommodate thousands of refugees. Officials from Victoria are asking Ottawa to increase language training spots for newcomers, however, acknowledging the long waiting lists will not help newcomers adapt and find work.