Volunteers aim to help Syrian refugees

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Yasir Elkuraji arrived in Canada three months ago.

He and his family are Syrian refugees. His family lost two children and his wife in a conflict that has displaced millions.

One of his sons, Ahmed, survived, but lost a leg and the use of an arm in an attack.

He and his surviving family escaped and spent three years in Turkey before being selected as government sponsored refugees to come to Canada.

His family, including his new wife whom he met in the refugee camp and his remaining children, now live in north Edmonton.

This week, the Elkuraji family was introduced in the Alberta Legislature by St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud, who shared the family’s story with her colleagues.

“The best choice was to come to Canada,” Yasir said through a translator on Tuesday. The interview took place before that afternoon’s legislative session.

His family wanted Canada because they felt in terms of rights, education and science, Canada was better than many of the European options.

They left their home because of the war, and the need to seek medical attention for Ahmed’s injuries after they were bombed.

Yasir said the refugee camp was liveable – you survive, he said.

But in the rotunda at the legislature on Tuesday afternoon, his family was all smiles.

“It’s been excellent,” he said of his experience in Edmonton so far. He feels like he’s living amongst family in his new community.

Renaud wants to challenge her fellow MLAs to reach out to government sponsored refugees. Part of the point of her presentation to the legislature on Tuesday was to highlight how volunteers in St. Albert and Edmonton have made a difference for government sponsored refugees.

“Myself and the two people I work with in St. Albert decided to adopt a Syrian family and do our part to assist them as volunteers,” Renaud said in her member’s statement. “There are very significant differences between private and government sponsorships such as regular weekly personal visits, friendships. Privately sponsored refugees benefit from well-coordinated volunteer supports that ease the transition to Canadian life,” Renaud said.

Carol Volger is Renaud’s constituency assistant. She got involved in grassroots efforts to assist refugees and chatted to Renaud about it, who wanted to get involved.

Volger, Jim Monzer and Amanda Archer are a few of the St. Albert-based volunteers. The volunteers have organized themselves so that a few people are assigned to each refugee family, with at least one member of each team able to speak Arabic.

“These volunteers are just incredible,” said Monzer. He said it’s important to realize refugees are not immigrants – meaning they’re not coming in with an English or French language proficiency required, or the technical or other occupational skills often required for immigration.

Like Renaud, Monzer pointed out there are two types of refugees. There are government sponsored refugees, and privately sponsored ones.

Groups have organized to provide housing and supports for a year for privately sponsored refugees, and often can offer moral support as well.

Government sponsored refugees have some help offered to them, but not as many or as thoroughly.

That’s where these volunteers come in, assisting with information, needed household items and even just visiting with the families, becoming friends.

Monzer said he knows a family of four government sponsored refugees who have to make do with $1,700 a month. From that, they have to pay rent for an apartment big enough for the whole family, buy their food and any other necessities.

That means even buying some bus tickets can be a stretch.

“They have to think twice,” Monzer said.

It’s through volunteer efforts and reaching out through her network that Volger, who is part of the team who work with the Elkuraji family, was able to raise the funds so that Ahmed could get a motorized scooter.

Prior to that, he was in an old wheelchair they’d found for him in Turkey. Volger was able to help the family get Ahmed’s medical needs assessed.

The scooter purchase has allowed the family more freedom as Ahmed can move around more easily, she said.

The volunteer group was formed via word of mouth and a Facebook page in Edmonton that was created to help find items and help. Some volunteer training occurred at a St. Albert church.

The teams are now connected to 37 families.

“The more you get involved, the more you want to help,” Volger said. She said Renaud has been generous and let her do some of her volunteer work during work hours.

Monzer said the families are grateful for the help, and the volunteers have been attentive, even noticing and providing small things like a need for dishtowels.

He speaks Arabic and has been working with a few different families.

Archer and her boyfriend Thomas Genore got involved after talking to Volger.

The team she is a part of was initially assigned two families, and while one family didn’t need much, the other is a family of six with a new baby arriving soon and they have become friends.

She said in an email they ask volunteers to visit once a week at least for three months. They are asked to help pass along information, find items and navigate signing up for programs and answering questions.

“Tom and I have visited them without our translator. We made do with sign language and Google translations. It’s slow going but you get there. I don’t see the visits stopping after the three-month commitment. We have so much to learn from each other,” she said in an email.

While she was nervous the first time they went to visit, those nerves were quickly settled.

“As soon as we walked in to the home of the first family it was like we were family. Communication isn’t always easy but the smiles and laughter are. Both families greeted us into their homes as if we were old friends. The family we still see regularly has told us we are like family to them now,” Archer said, adding she looks forward to learning more about their culture and past.

Monzer and Volger said that one of the great needs is for ESL classes, or English tutors.

Monzer said it’d be even better if the classes came with some kind of child care. Almost all of the families have children and are supposed to be self-sufficient within a year. But it can be hard to attend any classes if they can’t find child care.

The group would also be happy to see more volunteers. Volger said she can be contacted at Renaud’s constituency office for those interested in helping refugees adjust to life in Canada.

The phone number for the constituency office is 780-459-9113.

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