Metro Vancouver leaders are getting ready to welcome the largest influx of refugees in the province's history, but their optimism at helping those fleeing war-torn Syria is being met with concern about the availability of resources in areas such as housing and mental health.
The province allayed one concern Tuesday when it said it would cover the cost of every refugee student in B.C. public schools. However, community leaders said there's still a great deal of work to do in a short time frame.
Richard Stewart, the mayor of Coquitlam, said his community expects to receive close to 600 refugees in the near future. In a typical year, he said, the city would receive a quarter of that.
Mr. Stewart, who has spoken out about his daughter's struggle with mental-health issues, said that's one area he will be watching closely.
"The one thing for sure I'll be screaming about is the mental-health services the group will need," he said Tuesday, referring to issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Judy Villeneuve, a Surrey councillor, said her community has been growing by about 1,000 people every month and schools are at capacity.
"We want to be able to connect kids with schools, but we will need extra funding," she said, adding it would be used for areas such as portable classrooms and teachers.
The federal Liberal government has vowed to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. The Liberal Party's election platform budgeted $100-million for the resettlement program for this fiscal year.
The Liberal Party has also pledged an additional $100-million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The federal government has said it remains committed to bringing the refugees to Canada by the end of December, even as refugee advocates have questioned the tight time frame.
The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. says approximately 11 per cent of Canada's government-assisted refugees have settled in the province over the past decade. Using those numbers as a framework, it says approximately 2,700 of the 25,000 Syrian refugees could arrive in Metro Vancouver – with about 725 of them between the ages of six and 18.
Vancouver School Board trustees passed a motion Monday that called on the B.C. government to assure school boards they would receive funding for the incoming refugee students. Patti Bacchus, the trustee who moved the motion, said school boards are typically only funded for students registered by Sept. 30.
Doug Strachan, a spokesman for Surrey Schools, in an e-mail said it would also "need additional resources to provide effective and timely assistance." Mr. Strachan said his organization would seek funding from the province, as well as additional support from Ottawa.
The Ministry of Education in a statement Tuesday said "every refugee student in public school in B.C. will be funded regardless of when they start school."
"We will count students in February. The funding for any additional students will go to districts starting in April," the statement read.
The ministry said $258,000 was provided to districts for 63 refugee students who enrolled partway through the 2014-15 school year.
Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society, in an interview urged British Columbians to do whatever they can to support the incoming refugees. He said housing is the primary concern and those interested in helping can contact his organization through its website. Mr. Friesen also called on members of the public to share employment leads, and to volunteer – particularly if they're counsellors who can assist with trauma cases or mentors who have time to help refugees get used to their new surroundings.
Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver councillor, said residents may not realize they're in a position to help.
"They may not know what they have that could be needed. Really think through, if you're an empty nester with some space, if you're a snowbird with some time, if you're an organization that has some housing that you thought maybe was a big hassle to rent out, or whatever it is, now is really a call to action to really think about how that could be put to service in the coming months," she saidin an interview.
With reports from Frances Bula and The Canadian Press