Private sponsors offer help as government-assisted refugee arrivals stalled

Nearly 600 Syrian refugees were set to arrive in Canada yesterday but some of the 118 originally destined for Ottawa will be headed to other communities due to a shortage of permanent housing for government-assisted refugees.

Ottawa among Canadian cities where arrivals have been temporarily halted

Government-sponsored Syrian refugees were living in Ottawa hotels as they waited for permanent housing. (CBC)

Nearly 600 Syrian refugees were set to arrive in Canada Wednesday, but some of the 118 originally destined for Ottawa will be headed to other communities due to a shortage of permanent housing for government-assisted refugees.

The federal government has temporarily halted the arrival of government-assisted refugees in some cities, including Ottawa, at the request of the resettlement agencies working with them — but some private sponsorship groups are offering to step in to help.

The Catholic Centre for Immigrants, the agency overseeing the arrival of government-assisted Syrian refugees in Ottawa, requested the delay because all 450 temporary housing spots at downtown hotels were full as the search for permanent housing continues.

Many of the 200 private groups in Ottawa said they are ready and willing to sponsor Syrians originally intended to be government-sponsored refugees — as long as the government meets its commitment of sponsoring 25,000 refugees once the housing backlog clears.

Bjorn Helby is part of a private group in Ottawa that raised $50,000 to sponsor a family for a year. The group has leads on an affordable home but has yet to be matched with a family, he said.

"They're just waiting to hear when they can actually take concrete actions to actually help," he said.

'Very anxious' to help

Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group at the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, said private sponsors are actually competing to find refugees to sponsor and often have connections in the community to help find them accommodations.

Smith is working with more than 50 sponsors, and said 30 are still looking for a match.

"[They're] very anxious. You have to remember, they have raised this money," he said. 

"We've suggested to convert some of those government-assisted refugees to private sponsorships. I imagine our groups would be delighted to take them."

There is still a shortage of affordable housing in Ottawa. But Mark Zarecki, the executive director of Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, said it's likely easier for private groups to find housing for individual families rather than the settlement agencies currently searching in bulk. 

"If I tell you, 'I have a family, this kid is injured, this one is like that, we need a place to move them into,' you may be more responsive than if you're told, 'We have 50 families. Do you have rental space?'" he said.