Merna Schmidt knows that they will be here soon. She just doesn’t know how soon.
What she does know is that she’s only going to have four days’ notice when they’re coming — if she’s lucky. But she feels that she is lucky. After all, getting to this point wasn’t easy, but she made it. Helping to resettle a Syrian family in Canada is keeping the MacEwan University psychology instructor very busy this spring.“People are in need,” she says. “Let’s do something.”
MacEwan is sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees. Through the 40-person-strong MacEwan Community Refugee Project (MCRP), headed by Schmidt, the university is working together across departments and demographics to raise $30,000 to help a family of four resettle in Edmonton.
Resettling refugees is a very complicated process. There are three methods of resettlement in Canada – government sponsorship, private sponsorship and Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) sponsorship, which is the route MacEwan is taking in partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee. BVOR is a combination of both private organization funds and government subsidy.
This combined type of sponsorship was launched in 2013, according to the federal government’s website.
In both private and BVOR sponsorship, the sponsor is given the option of choosing a specific family or a family of specific needs, but the MCRP decided to waive that privilege.
“We talked about it, and we decided that we didn’t want to choose,” explains Schmidt. “We don’t care if they’re Muslim or Christian, or if they are a dual-parent or a single-parent family. We want to help those that need it the most.”
Before MCRP could sponsor a family, the government required the university to first raise the start-up costs to resettle the family. This came to around $7,000 up front for a family of four. After the dean’s office issued a challenge to each of the university’s associations to raise $2,000 apiece, SAMU (the Student’s Association of MacEwan University) pledged $2,000 to help resettle the family. The Faculty Association and Staff Association soon followed suit, and the dean’s office mirrored the donations with another $2,000. By Feb. 1, the MCRP had raised enough money and was matched with 33-year-old Amer and 29-year-old Einas, alongside their daughters, three-year-old Hana and two-year-old Maha. The family is from Damas, a town near the border between Syria and Jordan.
“It is exciting times. We’ve been busy raising awareness, collecting funds and goods, dividing up all the settlement responsibilities, finding accommodation and now moving,” says Schmidt. “We’ll be available 24/7 for this family.”
Since being matched with Amer and Einas, the committee has been hard at work preparing for their arrival. Furniture, clothing and food donations were collected. A table was set up to raise awareness and accept donations during Global Awareness Week. The committee purchased new car seats and a double bed for the family, and they located a modest rental suite.Once the family is safely in Edmonton, the real work begins.
Under BVOR sponsorship, the government matches money raised by the private organization — to a point. For example, a family of four receives $1,667 per month for six months, up to a total of $10,002.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Edmonton was $1,259 per month in October 2015, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2015 Rental Market Report.
“I don’t know where you’d find a place for that amount,” says Schmidt. “We need to find a place that’s not too expensive, so that after the funding is used up, the family will still be able to support themselves and afford their rent, so they won’t have to move again.”
Another serious challenge facing many of our new neighbours from Syria is a potential language barrier. While English is fairly common in Syria, it’s not spoken by everybody, and Norquest is the only school in Edmonton that offers beginner-level ESL training. MacEwan offers an ESL course and the dean, Elsie Elford, has offered to potentially waive the tuition costs for it, but it is an intermediate-level class. Both Amer and Einas speak some English, and both worked as teachers in Damas, but they may need some assistance to be able to enter the workforce.
“We have a number of students who speak Arabic on campus who have stepped forward and offered to translate,” says Schmidt. “We have the resources and the means to make a huge difference.”
A fundraising event is also in the works, and Schmidt says she is hoping to organize a Syrian cultural showcase sometime in March to help bring in more cash.
Amer, Einas and their two daughters are expected to be in Edmonton by March. They also have family living in Edmonton, so they will have a support network in the city.
Schmidt says she feels optimistic that her new friends will settle nicely into their new life in Canada, but she hopes she can reach her goal of $30,000 to make it easier for them.
“With the amount of students MacEwan has, if everyone gave a dollar, that would make a huge difference,” she says. “I asked in my class one day, and they put $51.90 into the jar.”
“I love my students.”
Photo by Casey Pollon.