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Dundas group is planning a warm welcome for a Syrian family of 14

What's it like to sponsor a family of 14 Syrian refugees? A Dundas group - one of many local efforts - is finding out.
"What if I had to take my two young kids by the hand, grab what we could and literally run for our lives?" says Penny Gill, left. "I felt my stomach go into knots just imagining that." Gill, Jean Archbell and Cheri Weaver are part of a Dundas group sponsoring a family of 14 Syrian refugees. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Just a few short months ago, Jean Archbell felt like one of the few people in Dundas thinking about Syrian refugees.

A canon at St. James Anglican Church, Archbell was fundraising to help the Niagara diocese sponsor 50 refugee families for its 140th anniversary.

It was moving slowly. Money came in trickles. Rather than a push, "I felt like I was pulling," Archbell said.

Now, everything has changed.

Archbell's group has grown to more than 50 Dundas volunteers sponsoring a family of 14 Syrian refugees. It's just one of the community groups in Hamilton helping refugees resettle in Canada.

Interest is so high that people hand Archbell money on the street. One parishioner boy gave her the money from his piggy bank. A local school, Dundas Central, is collecting clothes. 

As soon as they hear it's a refugee family, there's second thoughts about it. We'll just have to keep working at it.- Cheri Weaver, volunteer

"We formed a committee, and the money just started coming," she said.

The St. James effort picked up speed in September, when a photo of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a beach went around the world. Then on Oct. 19, the Justin Trudeau government was elected and plans to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by February.

The refugees due for Hamilton will be a mixture of government and privately sponsored. The St. James family is a blended sponsorship — they're raising more than $40,000, and the government is pitching in $16,000.

The group doesn't know much about the family they picked from a government website. They know the family's names and ages, relationships, and a few details on their circumstances. There's a mom and dad, and an uncle, and 11 kids aged one to 20-years-old. There was a 17-year-old girl scheduled to come too, Archbell said, but she got married at a refugee camp and is staying with her husband.

Money is the easy part

When it comes to sponsoring a family, Archbell said, the money is one of the easiest parts. It's when they land, and volunteers pick them up at the airport, that the real work begins.

Sponsors must find their families temporary and permanent housing. They line up health care and English lessons. They help the family get health cards and enroll in schools, and start bank accounts. They find them furniture and clothes, and pots and pans. They stock the cupboards with food. This formal commitment lasts a year, and the family could arrive any time.

People have just turned up at my door and said, 'This is what I was waiting for.'- Penny Gill, volunteer

Housing is tough. Volunteer Cheri Weaver is in charge of finding the St. James family a place to live, and she's struggling.

"This morning I was down on Barton Street and I was taking pictures of about six houses," she said.

The Hamilton housing market is difficult on its own. Rental vacancy rates are low and housing prices are skyrocketing.

Hard to find a house

But the size of the family is a challenge too, Weaver said. And there's stigma.

"As soon as they hear it's a refugee family, there's second thoughts about it," she said. "We'll just have to keep working at it."

Internet opponents of Canada's Syrian refugee plan often ask the question: why not do this for Canadian families? The question makes Archbell sit up straight in her chair.

"We do," she said. 

"We have a community dinner once a month. We do a coat drive here. We do a food drive. People bring food and the food goes out weekly to the food bank. There are just so many things we do locally for people."

You can help everybody

"The premise of that question is that it's one or the other," said volunteer Penny Gill.

Many refugee sponsors are people who have "given throughout their lives," she said. And inspiring people's charitable nature will inspire them to keep giving.

And people are giving. 

"I sent out an email on Sunday and said, 'We need linens for bathroom, kitchen, this many beds, this size, and so on,'" Gill said.

Now, "my living room is full to overflowing. It's no longer usable. People have just turned up at my door and said, 'This is what I was waiting for.'"

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC

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