Across Canada, preparations are underway to welcome Syrian refugees

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Hostility and racist attacks against Muslims in Canada are making the news in the wake of the Paris attacks. At the same time, Canadians are creating safe spaces to welcome the thousands of Syrian refugees expected to arrive before the end of the year.

Organizations across Canada are stepping up to ensure that resources are available for Syrian refugees.

Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services from the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC), says the biggest hurdle to overcome in their preparations in Vancouver is housing.

"Permanent housing on welfare rates -- that's what we need," he says. "Refugees face the daunting task of trying to find housing in the most expensive region of the world."

This is particularly true for Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) who receive financial support based on provincial welfare rates. In B.C., a single parent with four children under the age of 19 receives a total allowance of $1,250 per month for shelter, food and transportation.

To help address this issue, several organizations including ISSofBC are providing resources to educate and encourage B.C. residents to get involved. At their website, individuals can learn more about the refugee crisis and fill out a simple form to indicate housing availability.

While he has received a couple of concerned phone calls after the attacks in Paris, the overall support from like-minded groups and Canadian individuals has been overwhelming, said Friesen.

"This is a defining moment for Canadian history," he said. "The Syrian refugee resettlement has become the Great Canadian National Project. Everyone is involved…it's absolutely phenomenal."

In Toronto, Lifeline Syria has committed to training sponsors for the resettlement of 1,000 refugees through private sponsorships over the next two years, outside the 25,000 refugees who will receive government assistance to resettle in Canada.

With approval of the Canadian government, groups of five or more individuals, constituent groups or community groups can sponsor refugees privately. Sponsorship includes raising financial aid to cover the family's costs for a year, welcoming the family into Canada and taking steps necessary to support their resettlement.

Lifeline Syria has received overwhelming support and has over 1,200 individual and nearly 370 groups committed to meeting the goal of assisting 1,000 refugees. Peter Goodspeed, Communications Director for Lifeline Syria, says that more people are interested in getting involved and helping out after the attacks in Paris.

"If there's anyone who understands the horror of what happened in Paris, it's probably the Syrian refugees," he says. "A lot of people have recognized that and have said they'll do what they can to help."

Refugees undergo screening and scrutiny from the UNHCR and the Canadian federal government before entering the country. In fact, individuals are only referred to Canada if they are considered high priority meaning it's typically widows, orphans, women escaping sexual abuse, elderly people in need of medical care, and families with children that are passed onto the Canadian sponsorship system, added Goodspeed.

For those who are interested in participating in the sponsorship program for Syrian refugees, Lifeline Syria recommends visiting the Government of Canada's Sponsorship Agreement Holders page to find information for your area.

You can also visit your local immigrant services website to understand how GARs in your region require support and assistance.

"What makes this so phenomenal," said Friesen, "is that it was only a couple of weeks ago that we were in such an unfortunate, negative discourse during the election. And yes, some of that is surfacing again, but by and large the vast majority of Canadians feel that this is the right thing to do."

Alyse is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice, storytelling and tea. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and believes in the ability to make positive changes through media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer.

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