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Massive Refugee Centre Opens as Agencies Brace for Second Syrian Wave

Welcome House opens its doors Monday. Organizations in Vancouver and Surrey are already readying for the next influx.

Construction workers put the finishing touches on the Vancouver Welcome House on Thursday, which is set to open next week.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Construction workers put the finishing touches on the Vancouver Welcome House on Thursday, which is set to open next week.

Just four days before Vancouver Welcome House opens its doors Monday, a stream of cargo trucks were still moving five agencies under the same roof, as construction workers put the finishing touches on the long-awaited refugee facility.

Immigrant Services Society of B.C., the organization behind the 58,000-square-foot, six-storey project, is planning a public grand opening around June 25 — World Refugee Day.

But after attempting to get such a one-stop-shop refugee centre three times over the last 20 years, the opening comes as a major relief for ISSBC’s director of settlement services.

“To have this day finally arrive is pretty extraordinary,” Chris Friesen told Metro in a phone interview. “It's both daunting and exhilarating.

“It’s one thing to move a house — it's another thing to have four other organizations and your own two main offices move in together. It provides a whole bunch of untapped synergy by moving in under one roof.”

Welcome House’s completion couldn’t come soon enough Friesen, nor for the other groups shacking up with ISSBC at 2610 Victoria Dr., including Inland Refugee Society, Settlement Orientation Services, Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, and Mount Pleasant Family Place’s Circle of Care and Connection Early Childhood Development Refugee program.

With housing in short supply, many of the 1,600 Syrians who arrived in the city spent months in hotels while the 138-bed Welcome House remained under construction.

“The timing wasn't particularly good,” Friesen admitted. “It was understandably chaotic.”

Proving there’s no rest for the weary, though, he’s already bracing for what he called “phase two” of government-sponsored refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, expected in the fall — the second batch of 25,000 asylum-seekers committed to by the federal Liberals.

“It kicks off in full steam from September until the end of December,” he said, with 1,300 government-sponsored Syrians expected in B.C. and 458 from elsewhere. And as before, Surrey will receive the largest proportion of the new arrivals.

“The initial crisis of ‘Oh my god, they're here!’ has settled down,” Tahzeem Kassam, chief operating officer of Surrey’s DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, told Metro. “Now we're actually delivering programs as we normally do, and day-by-day we keep plugging away.”

She said last winter’s sudden flood of arrivals presented different challenges from the usual “show trickle” of families her agency normally serves. But now many are settled, other challenges have emerged.

“As the days go on, we're finding there's more and more folks with significantly more barriers, needing much more intensive supporting services,” she said. “Some have complex mental health and trauma issues, physical disabilities, mental disabilities — and not just one or two people, but whole families with multiple challenges.”

In response, her organization and MOSAIC are offering counseling and art therapy as part of a mental health support initiative funded by the United Way, which said in a statement is “critically important” to help cope with “the kinds of horrors that Syrian refugees, who now call Canada home, may have experienced escaping from one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”

As Kassam and Friesen prepare for the second wave of arrivals, both said that effort will be easier thanks to the Refugee Response Team the province announced in March to help them coordinate their work.

“For the first wave, we were trying to find our path,” Kassam said. “Now we're already ahead of the gate from last time.

“We already know what it will be like and how we could do it better. We feel a little more prepared — we've already done it now once.”

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