Over the past eight years, there were times when the congregation of the Faith Reformed Church of Telkwa thought of giving up on its plans to bring a refugee family from the Democratic Republic of Congo to northern B.C.
Last week, however, those doubts were forgotten amid tears and hugs as the Tezolo family – a mother, father and seven children – were welcomed to Smithers. In the crowd were members of another Congolese family who'd been sponsored by a different Smithers church several years ago.
Now, as the Tezolos are settling in to their newly adopted town of about 5,500 people, a community-sponsored Syrian refugee family arrived this week and another Syrian family is expected to follow later in the month.
"They're finally in a place where they can have a good life," church pastor James Folkerts said in a telephone interview the day after the Tezolos arrived.
The flurry of arrivals in Smithers comes as refugee settlement officials in major Canadian cities, including Vancouver, are scrambling to find suitable housing for government-assisted Syrian refugees, including families with four or more children. And it raises the question of whether small towns could be just as suitable – or better – places for refugees to land.
The Faith Reformed Church had sponsored a refugee family from Cambodia in the 1980s and started looking into sponsoring another family nearly a decade ago.
From the beginning, the church wanted to sponsor a family. The process, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was long and complicated. At one point the church weighed whether to give up, deciding instead to pepper government officials with calls and e-mails. Just before Christmas, Mr. Folkerts heard the family was coming, resulting in a scramble to arrange housing before they arrived.
The Tezolos can expect a warm welcome to a diverse community, says Smithers mayor Taylor Bachrach.
"A lot of people are pleasantly surprised when they come here that there are a lot of amenities that you would expect in a larger centre – and at the same time you get the warmth and welcoming nature of a smaller community," Mr. Bachrach said.
Smithers is among scores of small towns and cities across the country in which churches and other groups have rallied to sponsor refugees. To date, government-assisted refugees have been landing primarily in major centres, including Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, resulting in bottlenecks as settlement agencies try to find suitable accommodation for families.
In Smithers, the Bulkley Valley Refugee Sponsorship Group got started last fall with a core group of seven people. Since then, it has snowballed to include dozens of volunteers who have contributed money, goods and services. A local baker has promised to supply two expected families with free bread for a year; farmers have offered meat and vegetables and retired teachers have signed up to provide tutoring, driving and other support.
The group has raised about $82,000 and recently nailed down accommodation for two families: a three-bedroom house for $1,000 a month and a two-bedroom apartment for $775 a month.
"They won't fall through the cracks – there's a whole network of people here who will look after various aspects of their integration," said Pauline Mahoney, a spokeswoman for the group.
Last fall, Beaverfoot Lodge manager Raphael Assaf made headlines by offering free accommodation to refugees at the lodge – near Golden, B.C. – before its operating season, which runs from May to September.
That offer is still open, Mr. Assaf said on Friday, adding that he had not heard from any government or community agencies about his offer.
"We're sitting idle and all the rooms are available," he said.
Immigrant Services Society of B.C. director Chris Friesen was not immediately available for comment. But in recent comments to the Vancouver Sun, Mr. Friesen said his agency and Ottawa are talking about sending government-assisted refugees outside Metro Vancouver.
That approach would be welcomed by many, including Michele Rowe, a minister at St. Andrew's United Church in Golden. Ms. Rowe has recently started talking to municipal officials and others in the community about ways to house and support potential refugees.
"There are lots of good reasons to send them to bigger centres with lots of support, but there are also good things about small communities, too," Ms. Rowe said.