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Aiding Syrian Refugees – How Can We Help?

Aiding Syrian Refugees – How Can We Help?

Quite a number of RCCs have written into Head Office this week with a keen interest in volunteering counselling support and services for the Syrian refugees who will make their way to BC in the coming weeks and months.  It is heartening to see the desire to help and welcome families to our communities.

One suggestion was that BCACC might co-ordinate volunteer services of RCCs, matching counsellors with Syrian individuals and families as they settle throughout the province.  From initial inquiries, it seems that the best approach at the moment would be to work with the lead agencies co-ordinating the settlement services for the refugees coming to BC rather than starting a new service on our own:

  • The Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSBC) is the lead agency co-ordinating refugee resettlement in BC. They have had 3,000 people offer to volunteer already, in addition to material resources!  So they are very busy planning and sorting out all of the generosity coming their way.  We are connecting with ISSBC to ask how BCACC members might become involved in the immediate, mid- and long-term.  More information will be forthcoming.
  • BCACC sits on the Disaster Psychosocial Council which co-ordinates volunteers for the Disaster Psychosocial Program of BC. The Disaster Psychosocial Council and the Canadian Red Cross have been planning immediate response initiatives for the refugees at the national level (Red Cross) and locally if requested by communities.  If you are interested in learning more about the Disaster Psychosocial Program in BC or volunteering in the future, please see their website for information and details.

The following details might help you consider how to assist:

  • The number and timing of refugees coming to BC is now confirmed as 400 by end of 2015, with an additional approximately 1,500 in the new year. This news provides more ease in planning and organizing for the needs of the refugees.
  • The immediate needs of the refugees as they settle into communities will be quite practical: housing, schools, medical services and language training. There will be opportunities to volunteer counselling services at many points as they settle, but the timing and extent of the services needed is still very much unknown.
  • For now, it may be best to hold offers of volunteering until the planning and arrangements are more firm in each community where the refugees will arrive. Once the details are more concrete, local agencies will be able to provide co-ordination of services.

The following tips from refugee and trauma specialists may help us frame how best to assist the refugees as they arrive and settle.

(Thanks to Jeanne LeBlanc, member of the Disaster Psychosocial Council in Vancouver for collating these comments from her colleagues):

  • Sometimes when people are placed into group shelters of some sort, it can be a trigger for mental health and/or emotional issues.  If there are group placements, it could be useful to provide basic psychoeducation about psychological first aid and conflict resolution to any staff.
  • Basic psychoeducational groups with refugees can be helpful.  One suggestion was “get to know you” groups, in which people can casually be given information about local resources, but they can also be asked about what needs they have (thus a more casual needs assessment).
  • It is helpful to have locals accompany refugees to their various appointments to give support, directions, and facilitate the process of getting around the city. This may decrease feelings of being overwhelmed, and also provide support in office/bureaucracy settings when information is not provided or understood.
  • Another consideration with this group is to make sure that all services are accessible for both husbands and wives. We found that many of these families have small children where the family found it difficult for the wives to get to our office for services, or for healthcare, or to ESL classes. The husbands became the family representative and went to all meetings while the wife and children stayed at home. But then we had no idea how the wife and children were doing or what they needed. Offering child care services that they trust and/or getting discounted child care was a huge need for our Syrian/Iraqi/Afghan families, along with working with the wives on using public transportation independently.
  • Medical:  Very helpful to have culture-sensitive physicians, a patient advocate, and physicians who have worked with traumatized peoples.  Rape and/or torture histories may be prevalent in this group.
  • Education:  I think it would be useful to first see what refugee torture and trauma services in Canada are doing, what they suggest, what services they can and cannot provide. Identify gaps in service provision, and how you can immediately link them in or promote their support services while you are responding to immediate needs. For instance, when providing basic skills in Psych First Aid to teachers in community schools, bring in someone from a Torture Agency to talk about refugees and the impact of trauma on learning, and connect them to interpreting and translation services (Teacher-Parents nights / the need to have school letters translated so parents are not left behind, which impacts on intergenerational conflict…).
  • Longer term needs:  I have found that the ongoing concern of finding long-term affordable, safe housing close to transport and schools (after the initial settlement stage), and a lack of language skills causes our clients the most distress (language barriers and racism…).  So if those in charge can be made aware of the need to organise long-term accommodation, ongoing language classes and free access to the use of interpreters in regards to schooling, medical, mental health, housing and assistance with family reunion, then successful settlement is more likely.

Thank you for your emails and calls expressing your desire to help.  With the resources available in our province we will be able to come alongside our new neighbours and welcome them to our communities in the most positive way.


Carolyn Fast

BCACC Executive Director

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