The B.C. government will have a better idea on Tuesday about how many Syrian refugees will be arriving in the province, and where they will be settling, before the end of the year. On such short notice, that offers little time to ensure that needed supports are in place.
Premier Christy Clark, who enthusiastically embraced Ottawa's request to settle 3,500 new refugees in B.C., is lately sounding a more cautious note, saying Canada should play it safe and not rush the process. "We have to make sure that the counselling and supports are there for those who need it, adults and children. We're going to need time to make sure we have that," she told reporters last week.
Most of the newcomers to B.C. are expected to settle in the Lower Mainland where there are established services and hundreds of Syrian families already settled. But the Premier is determined to ensure many settle in other regions of B.C., and that is where the capacity to help will be most challenged.
Adrienne Carter is an expert in the mental-health needs of Syrian refugees, and she has trained 24 volunteer therapists who are ready to offer their services for free to the new arrivals who are bound for the south end of Vancouver Island. If her group can find office space and enough translators, they will be able to provide much-needed counselling services.
Ms. Carter's efforts are just part of a broad effort of Canadians to welcome refugees from Syria. But her work also highlights the ad hoc preparation that is taking place while the federal government scrambles to meet its commitment to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada in the next three months.
The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. expects about 400 refugees, half government assisted and half privately sponsored, to resettle in the province by the end of December. Government-assisted refugees will be placed in the lower mainland, but privately sponsored refugees will head to the communities where their sponsors are based – Victoria, Kelowna, Duncan and Prince George are preparing to greet refugee families before the end of the year.
No more than 20 refugees will likely arrive in the region where Ms. Carter and her team of volunteer professionals are ready to help. Other communities may not be as well served – there is an element of good fortune that the Victoria region happens to have an experienced volunteer corp of therapists at the ready.
Ms. Carter just spent four years with the Centre for Victims of Torture in Jordan, where she worked with hundreds of Syrian refugees. Before that, she specialized in trauma support with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). From that experience, she knows the counsellors themselves will need ongoing support to deal with the topics they'll be processing.
"Many of these refugees have gone through incredible trauma," she said. "The stories are very difficult to hear, even for experienced counsellors."
And, after 25 years working in child and mental-health services in Victoria, she knows the system is already strained and would not be able to cope with the urgent needs of the new arrivals.
"Mental-health services for adults and children are very, very sparse. Often Canadian children have to wait for months to get into our mental-health system. I'm very concerned that the refugees, when they come to Canada, most of them of have a lot of PTSD symptoms and they are going to need assistance and there was really nothing set up."
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is co-ordinating efforts between immigration support groups, the region's school districts, postsecondary institutions and other levels of government to welcome an unknown number of refugees in the next three months to southern Vancouver Island.
"We are rolling out the welcome wagon, recognizing that it looks different for refugees from a war zone," she said in an interview.
The biggest challenge, she said, will be finding a place for the new families to live: Victoria has one of the lowest vacancy rates for rental housing in the province, and low-rent housing is particularly squeezed.
"We want to provide a welcoming new home. It will take a heroic effort."
These stories are emerging across the country – Canadians pushing aside security fears and making the near-impossible happen.