Arriving in Edmonton as a government-sponsored Syrian refugee last year, Fatima Hamsho says she was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly her arrival in Alberta's capital went. The widow and her five children were welcomed at the airport, whisked into a taxi and taken to a guest house.
Speaking through an interpreter this week at the office of Edmonton's Catholic Social Services, Ms. Hamsho said her husband was killed at the outset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Every day until the family left for Lebanon in 2012, she feared for her children's safety at school in their village near Homs.
After 18 months in Canada, Ms. Hamsho – a lawyer in Syria – said her children have different challenges here. They have had to adapt to different curriculum, as well as the cold walk to their schools.
Her best advice to the thousands of new refugees who will come to the country in the months ahead is to focus on getting over the language barrier, and to "respect and appreciate the country where they will be settling in. And also try as much as they can to integrate."
She and her children were part of an early trickle of people who came to Canada fleeing the civil war in their native Syria, and will soon be joined by thousands more. About 3,000 of the 25,000 Syrian refugees set to land in Canada before the end of February will come mainly to five Alberta cities: Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Although the federal Liberal government has said the process to resettle refugees will move more slowly than promised during the election campaign, documents circulated to immigrant agencies this week show that by the end of the year, the province could still welcome almost 750 refugees – including 439 in Calgary and 285 in Edmonton.
The work to ensure their introduction to life here goes smoothly is ramping up daily. The provincial government has earmarked $1.25-million – on top of whatever Ottawa eventually offers – and has appointed a provincial refugee co-ordinator. Agencies are prepared to help three or more times as many refugees as during a regular year. School boards are preparing for an influx of school-aged children.
Help is coming from all quarters. Dozens of Calgarians showed up at the airport on Monday to greet a group of refugees with gifts, including warm clothes and teddy bears. "Host families" who will help guide the new arrivals through the logistics of everyday life in Canada – including shopping, banking and public transit – are being trained in the city every week. In Lethbridge, Arabic speakers from the Sudanese community are being tapped as interpreters. Edmonton's local Amalgamated Transit Union is spearheading an initiative to distribute hundreds of free bus passes to refugee families.
And Bev Rogan, a retired elementary school librarian, began a campaign this week called Calgary's 1,300 Stitches for Syria to gather hundreds of new knit and crocheted toques, mitts, gloves, scarves and cowls to be distributed to the 1,300 refugees who will come to the city in the months ahead.
"I thought about these young families who are out there with nothing, and moms who are trying to nurse babies and raise kids," she said. "I want to give them a warm welcome and let them know that basically Calgary is going to be their new family."
Ms. Rogan said she worries whether donations might be low due to the province's economic downturn, but in some respects, low crude prices could make it easier for the refugees' arrival. Enerjet, the country's newest charter airline – whose corporate business has been affected by the decrease in oil and gas activity – has offered some of the spare capacity on its Boeing 737s to fly refugees to or within Canada.
"The proud points in the history of Canada are at least to some degree defined by when Canadians rally together to support a humanitarian effort with merit," said Enerjet founder and chief commercial officer Darcy Morgan.
The residential vacancy rate in Calgary and Edmonton is higher than it has been for several years, which could make the search for accommodation easier. An oil company that wishes to remain anonymous has told Edmonton's Catholic Social Services it has modular housing units available. Big Calgary-based landlords such as Boardwalk Rental Communities and Mainstreet Equity Corp. have announced they will offer new refugees below-market rates on accommodation in the Prairies as well as other parts of Canada.
However, the supply of affordable housing remains a concern. In Edmonton, refugees could be temporarily placed at CFB Edmonton or in hotels. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, among others, has asked federal cabinet ministers to review whether the accommodation budget for refugees is adequate to cover market-rate rents.
"Housing will always be an issue," said Fariborz Birjandian, the chief executive of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, the city's lead agency in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. "The only challenge we have is affordability, because of the housing allowance that they make available – a family of four gets less than $700."
Alberta's mid-sized cities will play an important role as well. Sarah Amies, director of the immigrant services program at Lethbridge Family Services, said her community will welcome 200 to 300 refugees by the end of February. While many will want to live in Canada's largest cities and close to established Syrian communities, she said smaller centres have benefits as well, including less expensive housing, proximity to services, and not being lost in big-city anonymity.
"I feel desperately sorry for these people coming to southern Alberta in January," Ms. Aimes added. "We're going to have to make sure our welcome is even more warm."
In Edmonton, where up to 1,500 refugees are expected to arrive by the end of February, Stephen Carattini – the chief executive of Catholic Social Services – said numerous Edmontonians have called wanting to volunteer, or with offers of apartments and basement suite rentals for the refugees.
"It will be challenging, but we have no doubt that we will find homes for all of our refugees," Mr. Carattini said.
"I think we all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves."