Northern Alberta town’s small size makes volunteer coordination easier

WRITTEN BY MADISON FARKAS | mfarkas@cjournal.ca

On a chilly December afternoon in Peace River, Alta., a five-year-old girl with curly brown hair emptied the entire contents of her piggy bank, a grand total of $2.95, into Deb Prothero’s hands at the town’s Skating for Syria fundraiser.

“She said ‘It’s very important for everyone to give,’” recalled Prothero, who is coordinating Peace River’s preparation for the arrival of two refugee families fleeing the violent civil war in Syria. “That, to me, is just indicative of everyone’s generosity here.”

 According to the Government of Canada, Peace River is one of 288 communities across the country that will be welcoming a total of over 26,000 refugees. A five-hour drive northwest of Edmonton, Peace River’s population was under 7,000 as of the 2011 census. According to Prothero, being in a small town has worked to her volunteers’ advantage as they get ready for the Al Sawaf and Al Hallak families to arrive from Turkey.

“Everybody knows everybody, so it’s really easy,” Prothero said. “At one meeting, we wanted to reach out to the local soccer association to get them involved, and I asked who I needed to get in touch with. A bunch of people just hollered out the names of the coaches and their phone numbers. Then we wanted to get in touch with the swim team, and one lady stood up and said ‘Hi, I’m the coach.’”

Prothero moved to Peace River from St. Thomas, Ont. in January 2015. She was inspired to get involved with the Syrian refugee crisis after she saw the now famous picture of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last September.

“Seeing that picture motivated me,” she said. “I just couldn’t sleep after that, and I thought, ‘I need to do something about this.’”

Days later Prothero reached out to St. James Anglican Cathedral, which she has been a member of since moving to Peace River. The support was immediate and outspoken.

“It seems like every time I go out I’m a target for cheques. People want to give, and they’ve been incredibly generous.” – Deb Prothero

“Everyone stood up and said: ‘You tell us what to do and we’ll help,’” Prothero recalled.

Prothero already had decades of experience helping refugees in Canada, having coordinated the settlement of 10 Vietnamese families in 1980, a Bosnian family in the mid-90s, and an Iranian family in 2004.

Signing the paperwork

The first step was for the Anglican vestry council to make the legal commitment to the sponsorship by applying to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. They did so through the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, a longtime sponsorship agreement holder.

“They’ll often take only one or two refugee families a year, but in times of crisis, they ramp things up and find other parishes to help out,” Prothero explained. “They have a direct relationship with the government and they’re how we could prove that we have the capacity to support the refugees for at least a year, which is the legal commitment. We’re riding on the coattails of their agreement, basically.”

But Prothero knew it couldn’t just be the Anglican community that got involved. “The people that are refugees are not always Christian, and big as your Christian heart might be, you can’t integrate people into a community that is not theirs,” she said. “They have to fit into the geographical community, not just the church community.”

The Glenmary High School Social Justice Club turns over $700 to Rev. Dr. Iain Luke of St. James Anglican Cathedral on Jan. 6. The club earned the money, which will be used to support the two Syrian refugee families the church is sponsoring, at a student-staff hockey game, which the staff won. Photo courtesy of Deb Prothero. As such, Prothero reached out to all of Peace River, inviting anyone who was interested to a public meeting a few days after the application went through. Some 22 people came, and Prothero helped divide them into task forces based on what would need to be done.

“I knew about refugee coordination, but they knew Peace River and I didn’t, so we had to marry the two,” she said.

 A systematic approach

The discussion resulted in 10 volunteer groups. The first two covered household setup and the legal side of housing. They now have two townhouses almost completely furnished, down to the dry goods in the cupboards.

Margaret Stewart has been in charge of setting up the homes since she joined the volunteer team in January. She has watched them go from completely empty to move-in ready over a matter of weeks, and said she was amazed at how quickly everything has come together.

“The donations that we’ve gotten from the community are absolutely amazing,” Stewart said. “We’ve had people dropping things off, moving bedroom furniture around, and there was a group that came in to clean everything. The units look and smell so fresh and clean, and they just feel really welcoming and cozy and homey.”

Margaret Stewart (left) has been in charge of the volunteer team that is readying the refugees’ homes since January. Volunteer Isabel Shewchuk is a member of the local Pathfinders group, and leads the preparations binders of information on life in Canada, which include emergency and household contacts. Photo courtesy of Deb Prothero. Stewart knows Prothero from their church, which is how she came to be involved. “All the negativity around the whole refugee crisis really bothered me, with people not wanting them here, and calling them terrorists,” she said. “This was my way of fighting back at it with something positive. I would hope that if a crisis like that ever happened in Canada, then some other country would open their arms and welcome us.”

Dealing with negativity

While most of response to the refugees’ arrival has been overwhelmingly positive, there has been some negative backlash. In an attempt to gauge the town’s feelings about refugees back in November, Prothero posted her idea to Peace River’s general Facebook group.

“Within six hours, there were about 300 comments, some of which had to be removed,” she recalled. “I chose not to respond, to see what other people would say, and many of them came forward and said, ‘Hey, we’re better than that.’ The community answered its own negativity, and part of that definitely comes from being in a small town where everyone knows each other.

The next work area is what Prothero calls wallets. “If you think about what’s in your wallet — ID, driver’s license, health care cards, bank cards — we need one of every one of those for each person. It takes a particular skill set when you’re doing that for new people with language issues who have to navigate bureaucracies that want them to fill out forms.”

The main task of the job readiness group will be to get the refugees’ foreign credentials recognized, matching them with mentors in their various fields, and preparing them for any professional exams they may need to take. Meanwhile, a group of teachers will be helping the children enrol in whichever school the families choose.

“We deliberately chose townhouses near three schools, including a French school,” Prothero said. French is a common second language in Syria, and a few of the refugees have indicated that they know some French.

“There was a little anecdote about one of the boys in their application,” Prothero said. “Sami, who is seven, was attending a French language school when it became unsafe for him to go there because the path between home and school was being bombed.”

Mental and physical health

The trauma associated with witnessing that kind of violence is a major focus for the group responsible for mental health.

“These refugees are often coming with nothing,” Prothero said. “They’re coming from a camp where they had a tarp over their head, and they have trauma baggage. It sometimes takes a few months for that panic to get out of their system.”

There is also a physical health group, which is coordinating necessities such as doctors, dentists and food. In a new refugee settlement strategy for Prothero, the group will also ensure that each family member gets involved in some kind of activity.

“That is really helpful in overcoming mental health problems and trauma as well as integrating into the community,” she said. “If you have a language barrier to begin with, you tend to isolate. You do the things you have to do — go to work or go to school — but then you just go home. And that’s not a full integration.”

To help ease that language barrier, a group of retired educators and Arabic speakers will be tutoring the adults and the children in English as a Second Language. “We have quite a few nationalities represented in Peace River,” Prothero said. “It’s far more diverse than I expected. There’s a small Arabic community, and a small Muslim community.”

Muhammad Ashiq is the president of the Peace Country Islamic Centre. “There are approximately 12 to 15 Muslim families in Peace River,” he said. “We will definitely help the refugee families when they get here, with money, or clothes, or whatever it is they need.”Volunteers Nathan Miné-Goldring, Dennis Whitford and Omid Rashid deliver a washing machine and dryer to the townhouse one of the Syrian refugee families will be staying in on Jan. 9. Photo courtesy of Deb Prothero.

The Islamic Centre has already been involved in some of the preparations.

“I made the suggestion that along with other food there should be some halal food available, and I personally went to Edmonton to pick up the halal turkey that was donated by the centre.”

“Halal” refers to meat that has been butchered and prepared according to Muslim law. Ashiq and the Islamic Centre will also participate at the monthly fundraising dinners Prothero intends to have at various churches and community hubs around Peace River.

“Food is a great way to integrate refugees, because they know how to cook their food and they get excited about sharing it,” Prothero said. “Cooking with someone is one of the best ways to get to know them.”

The last two work groups are cultural awareness and fundraising. Cultural awareness will be helping the refugees learn about life in Peace River, and will also be helping the people of Peace River learn more about Syria. One of the details that group brought to light was the town’s noon alarm, a flood-warning test.

“That alarm goes off, and if you’re not from here, you don’t know what’s going on,” Prothero said. “If you’re from a war zone, that could be a trigger for a very scary panic attack. So the group realized we’d better tell the families about that.”

A community’s generosity

Prothero has been coordinating the efforts mostly through a Facebook group, which now has about 230 members. She said she has been amazed at what the town has been able to accomplish in such a short time. All the money raised for the project, over $26,000 so far, has been donated by individual people, as were almost all the furnishings for the townhouses. The only thing Prothero has had to buy new were mattresses; the rest of the money will be used to pay for basic expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, internet and phones.

“We’re way ahead of schedule on fundraising,” Prothero said. “Just yesterday someone gave me another $1,000. It seems like every time I go out I’m a target for cheques. People want to give, and they’ve been incredibly generous.”

As of Prothero’s most recent information, both families are still in Turkey. The Al Hallak family — Mohamad Saeed, Maysa and their sons Mohamad Sami, 7, and Wissam, 2 — were called for an exit visa interview on Feb. 11 in Ankara, while the Al Sawaf family — Zakaria, his wife Rahaf, their five-year-old daughter Lana, and Zakaria’s parents — had their interview on Feb. 15.

“The host country — Jordan, Lebanon, or in this case, Turkey — has to issue an exit visa before the Canadian government will put them on a plane and get them over here,” Prothero explained.

“Once that visa is issued, everyone scrambles to get them on that plane as soon as possible, and we’ll get a phone call to meet them at the airport. We’ll be lucky if we get 48 hours’ notice, but we’re trying to get them through the process together so we can make one trip to meet one plane in Edmonton.”

The entire town is waiting for the refugees’ arrival, which has its pros and cons.

“Everyone is anticipating them so much, and their pictures are on Facebook because everyone wants to know who these people are, and all of a sudden you’ve put them on pedestals and created almost these celebrity families,” Prothero explained. “When they get here, they may not want to be celebrities. It’s going to be like trying to take two families of movie stars and help them become just like our other neighbours and friends.”

Overall, being in a small town has been a big advantage for Deb Prothero and her volunteers as they prepare for the arrival of the Syrian refugees. In a matter of months, the town’s religious and secular communities have donated enough money and resources they now expect to fully support the Al Hallak and Al Sawaf families for two years instead of the originally planned one year.

Prothero doesn’t have communication directly with the families yet, but she is eagerly anticipating the phone call that will send volunteers to Edmonton to pick them up, which could come any day.

mfarkas@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail courtesy of Deb Prothero

The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak and can be contacted at jbrak@cjournal.ca