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988 Syrian refugees have arrived in Hamilton - housing still a top need

Hamilton organizations scrambled in January to provide adequate resources to an influx of Syrian refugees arriving to the city.

The number of Syrian refugees arriving in Hamilton triples the annual refugee average

988 Syrian refugees have arrived in Hamilton with more expected. (Kate Bueckert)

Hamilton so far has received 988 government sponsored Syrian refugees — almost double the number originally expected by the city's settlement agency.

With arrivals beginning in late December, 2015, the original plan was to settle 476 refugees by the end of February.

But then that number kept growing, in January to 877 and it increased again recently to 992 - tripling the city's annual refugee average of 300.

Its been an overwhelming task, history in the making. We've not seen this type of influx since the  Kosovar  settlement.- Daljit Garry, Executive Director, Wesley Urban Ministries

"The influx peaked late January, then was non-stop through the month of February," said Daljit Garry, Executive Director at Wesley Urban Ministries.

The surprise jump in numbers has left employees at Wesley, the city's settlement agency for refugees, scrambling to find enough support staff to handle the increase, training them on-the-fly and hustling to find sufficient temporary and permanent housing, putting a strain on everyone, including the newcomers.

"It's been an overwhelming task, history in the making. We've not seen this type of influx since the Kosovar settlement," said Garry.

For the refugees, it's meant longer stays at Wesley's receiving centre or in local hotels. Some are staying in one of three downtown hotels as long as a month or more.

"The turn around for housing can happen in two weeks," Garry said. But because the number increased so quickly and drastically, there have been long delays. 

So far 400 of the 988 arrivals have secured housing.

"It's about finding affordable housing. The size of families in many instances are quite large - seven to 12 people," said Garry. "You can just imagine that's been challenging for us... finding a place large enough hasn't been easy."

Despite still needing to find and arrange housing for almost 500 more arrivals, Garry is positive about the progress being made.

 "We feel good about where we are with housing, recognizing we need to continue to move forward to get people into their new homes," she said. "There is a lot to transition to, a lot happening in a short period of time."

The Wesley numbers only accounts for government-sponsored refugees. There are a number of area churches and groups sponsoring refugee families privately.

Hardy in the snow

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger told CBC Hamilton he expected there to be challenges along the way.

"So far I'm pleased with the way this is unfolding. It could be better but we're meeting the challenge and I know we're going to be successful," he said.

A welcome event for more than 80 Syrian refugees was held Tuesday at City Hall. Eisenberger said he was pleased with the turnout despite the snow storm.  

"They are a lot more hardy in the snow than some Canadians," he said. "They were out in numbers and we had a really great time."

Eisenberger said he knows first-hand the stress of arriving to a new country, but the indication on Tuesday was positive. "Some of the refugees spoke expressing their gratitude for the warm and welcoming reception to Hamilton and Canada."

The Liberals have pledged to resettle another 10,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. It is unknown how many more are planned to resettle in Hamilton.

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