Local organizations come together to help refugees

Following the Syrian refugee crisis, groups emerge with compassion

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Gail Morong points to a poster for the event. (Wade Tomko/Ω)

In nearly five years, the Syrian civil war has taken an immense human toll. According to Amnesty International, around 11 million Syrians have been killed or displaced since March 2011, yet the world hasn’t idly stood by while families have been torn apart, and 104,410 resettlements have been offered globally. Despite the fact that Kamloops seems like it is a world away from the turmoil, there are still many in the city who have been deeply impacted by the loss of human life in the region.

One such organization is RAFT (Refugee and Friends Together), which started in the 1970s as a group of concerned Kamloops United Church members who wanted to sponsor Vietnamese boat people to Kamloops in the wake of the Vietnam War. Fast forward to today, they are still actively working to sponsor refugees in Kamloops.

This time, they are looking to sponsor two Syrian refugee families in Kamloops, but, “so far the fundraising and paperwork have proved onerous,” said Lynda Fisher, president of RAFT. Fisher has said that even if the paperwork takes four years to process, they are determined to give refugee families a new start and a new life in Canada.

“The Syrian civil war has been in the media so often lately, we knew we had to take action. With 60 million refugees in the world, this is an ongoing problem. Syrian or not, we knew we needed to help someone,” Fisher said. “If there is too much paperwork and time involved in bringing Syrians over, we’ll bring over a family from elsewhere.”

Using the Kamloops United Church as a base for fundraising, RAFT has encouraged many businesses and organizations across the city (religious and nonreligious) to help bring refugees to Kamloops. They have also shared a critical role in encouraging discussion on the issue throughout the region by hosting information sessions.

RAFT has even prepared for the refugees’ arrival. Fisher has stated that they will pay for professional tutors to teach the refugees English. They have also enlisted the help of immigration services to help them secure jobs once they’ve arrived. But Fisher said this process “may take a while, as it is very difficult to integrate people into a society where they know none of the customs.”

While RAFT has been working to sponsor refugees, one Kamloops family has been working to set up a fundraising dinner to sponsor humanitarian aid to Syria through the Canadian government’s Syrian Emergency Relief Fund. TRUFA equity committee co-chair and Open Learning instructional designer, Gail Morong and her family have organized a dinner fundraiser for Syrian Refugees. All proceeds from the dinner will be donated to the United Church of Canada where they will be matched by the government as part of the relief fund.

The dinner, which has a Caribbean theme, will be held on October 17. This isn’t the first time Morong has used her event organizing skills to fundraise for a good cause. She had previously organized a dinner fundraiser for a sick Jamaican student studying at TRU who needed to undergo surgery. This time however, she’s fundraising in memory of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed ashore in Turkey.

“There was that picture of that little boy on the beach. When I saw that, I knew I had to do something,” Morong said.

Local NDP candidate Bill Sundhu will be attending the fundraising dinner to speak on the crisis, but for reasons non-political.

“I want him to come as a human rights lawyer and speak from the heart. I don’t want him there as an MP candidate,” Morong said.

Students here at TRU have taken an active role in helping refugees as well. WUSC (World University Service Canada) TRU is currently trying to sponsor student refugees to come study at TRU.

This July, TRU officially joined WUSC, the cross-Canada initiative to help build global engagement on Canadian campuses. Kenna Sim, co-chair of WUSC TRU, said she wished TRU had formed a WUSC club sooner.

“The WUSC initiative is active in many Canadian universities, and we believed that it was time TRU joined this nationwide network. We felt having a WUSC club on campus would be great way to get students engaged with international issues,” Sim said.

Although the organization mainly focuses on raising the awareness of international humanitarian issues at Canadian universities, one of the group’s most well-known initiatives has been the Student Refugee Program.

WUSC is active in many refugee camps in the world, from Malawi to Thailand. In these camps student refugees apply for sponsorship to Canadian universities and are selected based on academic merit. Around 85 refugees are brought to Canada to study every year. Back at home WUSC gathers funds to bring the students over, prepares for their arrival and acts as a support structure for sponsored students once they arrive.

TRU political science professor Robert Hanlon has credited groups like RAFT and WUSC for bringing the refugee crisis into focus.

“It is extremely encouraging to see the local community focus on an important issue like this,” he said.

He added that more Canadians should be involved, or at least informed, on the issue.

“There is a lot more people can do. Even if you can’t give funds to humanitarian groups, simply having a conversation and raising awareness in the greater community helps. If you want to have a bigger impact, try emailing your MP and starting a conversation on the issue that way,” Hanlon said.

However, Hanlon also warned citizens to think critically about the situation before jumping straight in.

“Stabilization in the Middle East is important, but Canadians need to think about how far they want to get involved in another country’s affairs,” he said. “The key to stabilization in the region isn’t only humanitarian aid, but international co-operation amongst opposing forces.”