Small Canadian towns opening their doors to Syrian refugees

Concern for the plight of Syrian migrants appears to be mobilizing rural Canada, with residents in more than 65 small communities across the country raising their hands and offering to help settle thousands of refugees.

Despite infrastructure challenges, more than 65 towns across Canada want to help

A crowd gathers at a church hall in Finch, Ont., to discuss the issue of refugee sponsorship. Not including Quebec, federal immigration officials say 65 small towns have agreed to help resettle Syrian refugees. (Julie Ireton/CBC Ottawa)

Concern for the plight of Syrian migrants appears to be mobilizing rural Canada, with residents in small communities across the country raising their hands and offering to help settle thousands of refugees. 

On Thursday, federal immigration department officials said more than 65 Canadian towns outside of Quebec, which has a separate immigration system, are now prepared to welcome displaced Syrians.

That's on top of the 36 larger centres already set up to handle the resettlement.

Randy Douglas, a municipal councillor in North Stormont, Ont., says residents of small towns are happy to help resettle Syrian refugees, even if those same small towns lack essential infrastructure. (Julie Ireton, CBC )

Randy Douglas, a municipal councillor in the municipality of North Stormont, south of Ottawa, is eager to invite Syrians to his community near the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Earlier this week, Douglas organized a meeting at a church hall in Finch, Ont., to see if there was support from residents.

Before the meeting was over, Douglas had received offers of money, free housing, English language training and significant volunteer support from people he'd only just met.

Small towns, big challenges

Douglas, however, can also rhyme off the many challenges facing a small town that lacks the infrastructure to handle people from a different culture and religion who may have experienced trauma in their home country.

"The absence of mass transit. The fact that the volunteers are spread apart from each other. The absence of specialized health care," said Douglas. "PTSD will be a major issue for a number of refugees, as well as lack of Arabic speakers."

Douglas also recognizes there will be be in this rural region from people who don't appreciate newcomers. Some of his own friends are against the refugees coming, he said, and aren't supporting his efforts.

"I don't know if it's fear. Perhaps they're not used to supporting this type of project," said Douglas.

Firas Shammas, originally from Syria and now a Presbyterian minister in Morrisburg, Ont., speaks to a refugee sponsorship group. (Julie Ireton/CBC Ottawa)

Firas Shammas, a Presbyterian minister in Morrisburg, Ont., came to Canada from Syria two years ago and is helping mobilize other sponsorship programs in eastern Ontario. 

Shammas originally came to study in Montreal, but did a work placement in this south eastern Ontario town and has no plans to leave.

'Exactly the type of people you want to meet'

"I've met the nicest and warmest and most welcoming and forgiving people," said Chamas. "I think when you come over from one place to another, this is exactly the type of people you want to meet."

His advice for new migrants is to quickly lose the mentality of being "a guest" in this new country.

"I think it's all about exploring new things and being brave and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and trying to be part of the community that brought you here."

Meanwhile, John McCallum, Canada's immigration minister, is visiting communities across Canada where refugees will settle.

"My purpose on this trip is to honour and make public the contributions of Canadians who are really stepping up to the plate to help out on this national project," said McCallum.

"But I also want to encourage others to step up to the plate."

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is with CBC Ottawa. She’s a critical thinker who has produced hundreds of original pieces of impact journalism. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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