Wednesday December 02, 2015

Canada's small communities can be ideal for Syrian refugees, says rural sponsor

Abdel Malek Al Jassem, Sawsen Mustafa and their family in Bloomfield, Ont.

Abdel Malek Al Jassem, Sawsen Mustafa and their family in Bloomfield, Ont. (Courtesy of Carlyn Moulton)

Listen 8:07

Is a small town the right place for refugees to live?

Some Canadians are skeptical the Syrians now arriving in the country can thrive outside of big cities. They warn that there are simply not enough supports -- such as Arabic interpreters, education specialists and trauma counsellors.

But some municipal and provincial leaders are now pressing Ottawa to look at smaller centres for settlement.

Carlyn Moulton

Carlyn Moulton (Courtesy of Carlyn Moulton)



Carlyn Moulton believes refugees can thrive in rural Canada. She's part of a group in southeastern Ontario that recently welcomed a Syrian family of 14 to their community. She spoke to As it Happens Carol Off from her home in Bloomfield, in Prince Edward County. The following is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Carlyn, what made this family that you sponsor so well-suited to rural life in Canada?

Carlyn Moulton: Well, I think they had been in a rural area in Syria, for many years. They'd come from a farming background. They had a small grocery store where they were selling a lot of things that they had grown themselves. They owned cows. They made their own yogurt. And they really weren't urban people when they were bombed and displaced. They went to Lebanon and were in a village there as well. So when they arrived here I think they were very happy to find out that they were in an agricultural community where they might find activities and work to do that they were well-suited for.

CO: This is a very big family, 14 people...They arrived just at the end of October. So how are they doing?

CM: They're doing very well. I think they're a bit shocked to arrive when they arrived, when we started to show them the community. Of course, it was the day before Halloween. The town was decked out and looked a little scary, but they're settling in very, very well. The kids are in school. That was the first thing they all asked about, as soon as they got off the plane: "Can we go to school now?" They've been out for four years. They're settled into their own home. They've made a number of friends. The children have made friends, but also the adults. So that's really changing our community in ways that we hadn't even imagined.

I don't think we're exceptional. I think that rural communities depend on one another, and they're much more adaptable than possibly some people might think.  - Carlyn Moulton

CO: And did you have anyone who could speak Arabic to them when they arrived?

CM: Well, one of the interesting things about this is that in Prince Edward County when we started, people thought, we don't have any Arabic speakers. But of course we do. And as we reached out to the local mosque and to others, to find out where we might find some assistance, it turned out there were a number of people who had local businesses, who also spoke Arabic. And they've been an enormous help to us.

CO: We're hearing from many sources that a lot of the kids especially will arrive here quite traumatized. They've been in a war and they were forced to flee. They've been living in a camp with almost nothing. They haven't been in school. It's been really very difficult for them. Is there some support for the kids, and the family, just to deal with the trauma?

CM: We're very lucky. We have a number of people who are recently retired who are either health advocates, mental health advocates, a retired dentist, a retired doctor -- who are all part of our team – a couple of nurses. That team has been just really organized and terrific in terms of lining up those supports.The first time we had a meeting, I thought we might have had 10 or 15 people show up, and 125 people showed up. The town hall was standing room only. And then we had a second meeting, and another probably 100 people showed up, who hadn't been at the first meeting. We just had a third, and there were about 80 new people at that.

CO: Chris Friesen, who heads an umbrella organization of Canadian settlement groups, said [refugee families] need to be in urban centres where they can find Arabic speakers, where they can find doctors, where they can find trauma counselors, where they can find a community that they can fit into. And that they're not going to find that in the small centres. And if you put them there, they'll just eventually leave and go into the big cities. So how does your family not fit the mold?

CM: Well, it's early days yet, and who knows a year from now what choices they're going to make? But they seem very, very happy where they are. And certainly Prince Edward County is a fairly unusual community. Very close-knit. There are a wide range of skills here, people who've been here for many years, and other people who've moved here. I don't think we're exceptional. I think that rural communities depend on one another, and they're much more adaptable than possibly some people might think. I would call it determined compassion. I think that there's a really strong sense of conviction that this is our moment, that it's an exceptional crisis. And everyone really wants to do something. And in a community this size, it's easier to pull together a group, because we all pretty much know one another.