The last of the government-assisted Syrian refugees to stay at a Halifax hotel as they await housing are moving out, transitioning to their new lives in Nova Scotia.
For the last two months, the Best Western Chocolate Lake Hotel has served as headquarters for incoming Syrian refugees.
Nearly 700 government-assisted refugees have come to the province and all have stayed at the hotel as they await housing. There are now just seven families left. Those families are expected to move into their new apartments this week.
The Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia set up a mobile office on the third floor in December.
On Friday, staff and volunteers packed up that office, along with the pop-up daycare and dining room.
"It's been an amazing journey for all of us," said ISANS staff member Vesna Mirosavljevic.
She said planning started in early November to receive the families. It was a huge job, trying to place 700 people arriving around the same time. ISANS typically helps between 180 and 200 refugees a year.
"Once they came here, it was something that nobody could plan, really," said Mirosavljevic. "But, thanks God, really fast we figured it out."
'Amazing' volunteers made it all happen
Mirosavljevic said accommodating that many people took some organization by a team of "amazing" staff and volunteers.
"In the first two weeks we had children almost hanging from the ceiling. They were taking over the hotel until we put in some structure," said Mirosavljevic.
That structure included a daycare for the small children. Volunteers from the YMCA worked with the school-aged children.
That left mornings free for parents to discuss assimilation into Canadian culture with ISANS volunteers. In the afternoon they took part in organized trips into the community to spots such as recreation centres and the Oval.
"We worked 24-7. Everyday. Holidays, Saturday Sunday, every night," said Mirosavljevic.
She said it was stressful initiially, "But it calmed down pretty quickly. In two weeks we were really on top of our game."
Narine Mosevena, who has worked with ISANs for 16 years, said a major part of her job to find housing.
It wasn't only the number of refugees all at once, but the fact that many had large families of often between seven and 11 people.
"Halifax is not a big city, we don't have so many four bedrooms and five bedrooms and this was a big challenge," said Mosevena.
She said the whole process has been bittersweet.
"Honestly, it is sad — but at the same time you are happy because you accomplished something," she said.
"They already suffered enough. They want to be together and they want something better than they had before."
What do hotel staff think?
Jeremy Thammavongsa, an employee at Best Western Chocolate Lake Hotel, has been serving meals and helping with activities for the refugees.
"It's been pretty busy, it's been pretty hectic. When the numbers are large it can be pretty crazy. All the kids can be wild but they're very nice," he said.
"I've loved having the kids here. It probably made my job easier coming to work."
He said most of his colleagues at the hotel are feeling a mix of emotions, including a sense of relief.
"I've gotten pretty close to some of the families. When they move out, like this one particular family they had three or four sons, and they would always help me push the cart or help me bring in dishes and stuff," said Thammavongsa.
"It's just kind of sad to see them go, but I know they're around the area so I'll see them as time goes on. But I'm going to miss them. They're definitely exciting people to have at the hotel."