HAMILTON — Hundreds of people devoted to helping refugees gathered for the start of a national three-day conference on Thursday with a renewed spring in their step and a barely contained excitement.
In the following days and weeks, the first wave of 10,000 Syrian refugees will begin arriving in Canada — the government has said by the end of the year — dominating talk at the fall consultation of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Deborah Tunis, a longtime employee with the federal government, came out of retirement to become the top bureaucrat in charge of the Syrian resettlement effort.
It’s an opportunity to participate in an important national project, make a contribution, and make a difference in people’s lives, Tunis said in an interview.
“Our assistant deputy ministers this week said this is the most exciting, exhilarating thing they’ve worked on,” Tunis said.
“For many people in the department, they’ve been wanting to work on this kind of a project for a long, long time — it’s why people come to work.”
The logistics, however, of providing that welcome is a daunting challenge — even for groups and organizations that have spent years helping refugees.
Jennifer Bond, an Ottawa professor now providing expert advice to the new refugee minister, said what’s different is the change in attitude at the highest levels in the country.
“For the first time in more than a decade, we have a government committed to refugee protection,” Bond said.
At the same time, she stressed, Ottawa needs significant support and co-ordination from other levels of government and local groups.
“This is truly an incredible mobilization,” Bond said.
The Liberal government has also promised to resettle another 15,000 displaced Syrians by the end of February. In addition, private groups are sponsoring their own refugees.
The government has mandated the priority is to help the most vulnerable Syrians come to Canada and a huge challenge, Bond said, is how to identify those.
One aim is to help complete families make the move, leading to reports that single men would be excluded from the program.
Tunis, however, said there had been no explicit directive from the assistant deputy minister during a technical briefing to exclude single men but said families, women, children and sexual minorities at risk take precedence.
“Those are where priorities are but we haven’t said that we aren’t taking any single men, it’s just that those other cases are going to the top of the list,” Tunis said. “Single males will be coming as part of this population.”
It’s also not clear when money will begin flowing to those faith and other groups who will provide the on-the-ground supports for the newcomers but Tunis said it would likely be a matter of weeks now that the program parameters are in place.
Initially, housing will be a priority — for example, some hotels and schools may provide immediate shelter — but the list of tasks, from providing health care and language lessons to schooling and social supports is long.
Aid organizations and others getting ready to help in those tasks can barely wait.
“No matter the timeline, they are coming,” Loly Rico, the council’s president, told conference delegates.
“We want to provide them with protection as soon as possible.”
But even before the Syrians arrive, delegates were reminded of the mammoth crisis facing millions of others who are not receiving the same kind of global and Canadian attention.
“We want to remind the government there are refugees fleeing from Africa,” Rico said.
Furio de Angelis, the representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Ottawa, told delegates that the gap between pledged aid to them and the need remains large.
“It’s not sustainable,” de Angelis said.
A stronger link between humanitarian aid and development programs is needed, he said.