With the news that Canada has now welcomed the 25,000th government-sponsored Syrian refugee, we understand that the focus may shift to privately sponsored refugees, so we’re moving into a slightly higher gear of preparation.
Chief among that is securing affordable housing. This is a delicate balance of considerations. We don’t know how big the family will be: we’ve opted to secure a three-bedroom apartment that can accommodate a family of 5-6. We want it close to schools, transit, groceries. Should it be near a mosque? Should it be near ESL classes? The family we sponsor may be English, French or Arabic speaking. They may identify as Muslim, Christian or neither. We’ve already signed the lease, but have no idea if the family will arrive next week, next month or three months from now. So we make our best guesses. Affordable housing is in scarce supply: we can’t afford to wait, even if it means the apartment sits vacant for a while. Seems a bit crazy, doesn’t it?
In the meantime, we’re doing repairs, cleaning , hanging curtains, gathering furniture, bedding and housewares, stocking the pantry (I’m sourcing Middle Eastern spices – za’atar, baharat and sumac – and trying my hand at freezing pomegranate seeds because this staple will be out of season when the family arrives.) Members of the group who will have direct family contact are undertaking “cultural sensitivity training.” This flurry of preparation is an exercise in hurry up and wait.
Our group will cover the rent for the family’s first year. After that, they’ll assume responsibility. This assumes they’ve found work. More best guesswork. If family members have post secondary education and speak English, they may have better prospects of landing work reasonably quickly. If they don’t, employment may be more challenging. If they don’t land work by the end of the sponsorship year, low income social assistance will kick in to provide $1750 a month. Anyone who pays rent in Toronto knows that once you’ve paid your monthly rent out of that meager amount, there won’t be much left for anything else.
Finding REALLY affordable housing is critical. A bit of an oxymoron in the 6ix.
There’s a conundrum here. Rents are so much cheaper in other parts of the country. Many smaller communities with declining/aging populations would welcome an influx of new residents. So, there’s a case to be made for not settling so many refugees in expensive, crowded metropolitan areas with housing shortages like Vancouver and Toronto. But these urban centres can offer so many critical resettlement advantages, including ESL classes, counseling and health services, transit, greater job opportunities, and the ability to readily connect with established Syrian communities.
All these logistics and practicalities. They’re very real, very big issues. And then there are the equally enormous emotional realities for a family that has left everything and everyone they know to settle in an absolutely foreign northern country. Maybe this waiting thing isn’t so bad: maybe the snow will have melted. It’ll be one less shock to deal with.