Help pours in for Syrian refugees in Calgary, despite economic woes

Naheed Gilani's investments have been pummelled by the crude price collapse, but the Calgarian says he hasn't hesitated for a moment to contribute thousands of dollars to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

CALGARY — Naheed Gilani’s investments have been pummelled by the crude price collapse, but the Calgarian says he hasn’t hesitated for a moment to contribute thousands of dollars to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

“My reasoning was, ‘we can’t afford to wait for the next person who might be in a better economic condition than I am,”‘ said the 35-year-old, who is part of a group of five Calgarians sponsoring a widow and her two young children.

Calgary is expected to take in up to 1,300 refugees in the coming weeks, though final figures have not been pinned down. Of those, 502 are through private sponsorships — one of the highest numbers for Canadian cities, according to federal government figures. All this as mass layoffs in the oilpatch become a regular occurrence and year-end bonuses are slashed.

Gilani, born into a comfortable life in Canada to East African immigrant parents, said it’s important to put Calgary’s economic woes into perspective.

“I just think people get so used to their high level of Canadian standards that we’re not as resilient in the face of a downturn as we should be. People don’t know what resiliency really is,” he said.

Stephen Scott, an engineer who was laid off in October, said he has no qualms about Calgary taking in refugees.

“I’m not going to be looking for the same jobs they are,” he said. “If you had a family living in Syria, you’d want to get out of there. So we need to give these people some opportunity. When we were born in North America and the western countries, it’s like we won the lottery.”

Even though a light-rail transit station in Calgary was scrawled with anti-refugee graffiti earlier this month, that intolerance isn’t representative of the vast majority of what Mayor Naheed Nenshi says he’s witnessed in the city.

He estimates that 95 per cent of the feedback he gets on the refugee issue is from Calgarians clamouring to help.

“But there is a little undercurrent and people are saying ‘Look — if you’re being so helpful to these refugees, what about people who are hurting right now?’ And that’s a fair question,” he said.

“But of course let’s remember that folks that are hurting right now have access to a huge raft of resources, whether it’s (employment insurance) or social programs or housing in our current community, whereas the folks who are coming are fleeing unspeakable violence and trauma and don’t have anything.”

In Calgary, social housing will not go to refugees, as waiting lists for those units are already long.

Rather, Nenshi said, it will be up to the private sector to find homes for the refugees. Local real estate firms have already offered discounts and free rent for refugee families and Nenshi said he’s even hearing from citizens eager to offer up basements or spare rooms.

There are some common misunderstandings about the economic impact the refugees will have on the city of 1.2 million, Nenshi added.

“Last year, with the economic downturn well in play, we added 3,000 new Calgarians every month,” he said. “To absorb another 1,000 people, half of whom are children, over the course of the next couple of months, even in a time of economic downturn — in a city this size, it shouldn’t have any impact really whatsoever on individuals.”

Nor should Calgary experience any hardship from 300 to 400 refugees entering the job market in “dribs and drabs” as they complete their language training and update professional accreditation, he added, and the city’s social services won’t be unduly strained.

“We normally bring in 1,000 refugees a year in any given year. So certainly we’re looking at doubling that in a shorter period of time, but those resources are available, whether you’re talking about English classes or trauma counsellors or mental health folks or the school boards being able to welcome these kids into their community.”

Community organizer Saima Jamal said looking for a job isn’t a top priority for refugees when they first arrive.

“The first six months, you just focus on language training,” she said. “They’re just right now getting their feet wet and entering a new country.”

Jamal, who has been working to match Syrian families with sponsor groups, said the support she’s seen has been “overwhelming.”

“If one person is faltering, somebody else is always picking up,” she said.

Many Calgarians unable to put thousands of dollars toward private sponsorships are still finding ways to help within their budget, said Jamal. That could include taking a family shopping for winter clothing or on a day trip to Banff.

D.D. Coutts, manager of communications for the Calgary Food Bank, says the arrival of refugees will add to the already increased demand caused by the downturn.

Preparations are under way, especially getting pantry hampers ready with the basics like flour, sugar, salt and pepper — “that initial kitchen set-up,” as Coutts puts it.

“That amount of people will not impact us enormously. We always have new immigrants coming in, always have new Albertans coming to the province.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman walks through Toronto’s financial district on Monday, July 30, 2018. A new poll suggests most Canadians believe there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in this country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Canadians, especially women, say gender equality not achieved in Canada: Poll

63 per cent said equality between men and women has not been achieved

FILE - In this March 3, 2021, file photo, anti-coup protesters run as one of them discharges a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas fired by riot policemen in Yangon, Myanmar. The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is adding to pressure for more sanctions against the junta, as countries struggle over how to best confront military leaders inured to global condemnation. (AP Photo/File)
Escalating violence raises pressure for Myanmar sanctions

More shootings were reported over the weekend

A moth-killing drone hovers over crops in a green house in Monster, Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. A Dutch startup is using drones to kill moths in midair as a way of protecting valuable crops in greenhouses that are damaged by caterpillars. PATS Indoor Drone Solutions emerged from the work of a group of students looking for ways to kill mosquitos in their dorm rooms. The drones themselves are very basic, but they are steered by smart technology and special cameras that scan the airspace in greenhouses. When the cameras detect a moth, a drone is set on a collision course with the bug, destroying the bug with its rotors. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)
Drones vs hungry moths: Dutch use hi-tech to protect crops

Drones instantly kill the moths by flying into them

Health-care worker Jenne Saunders prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province on March 1, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada set to receive more than 910,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines this week

Federal government looks for vaccine-makers to finalize delivery of eight million doses by March 31

Statistics Canada’s offices at Tunny’s Pasture in Ottawa are shown on Friday, March 8, 2019. Newly released documents show Statistics Canada considered delaying this year’s census until 2022 over pandemic-related concerns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Statistics Canada considered delaying this year’s census to 2022 due to pandemic

A census takes seven years between the start of planning to the release of data

Ben King scores for the Red Deer Rebels during the third period of a Western Hockey League game against the Calgary Hitmen at the Westerner Park Centrium Saturday. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)
Rebels complete comeback to pick up first win of season

Rebels 3 Hitmen 2 (OT) The Red Deer Rebels were able to… Continue reading

Hamilton Forge FC’s Giuliano Frano (8) heads the ball against CD Olimpia’s Jorge Benguche (9) during Scotiabank CONCACAF League 2019 second half soccer action in Hamilton, Ont., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Forge FC owner Bob Young says the Canadian Premier League champions will be playing the Canadian Championship final against Toronto FC at a disadvantage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Forge FC owner upset at Canada Soccer’s timing of Canadian Championship final

Winner of Canadian Championship final earns a berth in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League

Team Wild Card Two skip Kevin Koe reacts to his shot as he plays Team Newfoundland and Labrador at the Brier in Calgary, Alta., on March 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Wild Card Two’s Koe beats Gushue 9-7 to hand defending champs first loss at the Brier

Gushue was a tad heavy with his final draw and Koe picked it out for the victory

(Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No regrets: Grammy-nominated DJ Jayda G on choosing beats over sciences career

TORONTO — House music producer Jayda G knows a thing or two… Continue reading

This image provided by Harpo Productions shows Prince Harry, left, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, speaking about expecting their second child during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” airs March 7 as a two-hour exclusive primetime special on the CBS Television Network. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP)
UK royals absorb shock of revealing Harry, Meghan interview

Anti-monarchy group Republic said the interview gave a clearer picture of what the royal family is like

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on December 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservatives to call top Sajjan, Trudeau aides to testify on Vance allegations

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives plan to summon two senior Liberal aides… Continue reading

Elvira D'Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Several provinces were preparing to loosen COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday, as Canada’s… Continue reading

Mount Pearl Senior High in Mount Pearl, N.L., remains closed on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The provincial health authority says there were 185 cases at 22 schools, including 145 infections among staff and students of one high school in Mount Pearl that was an early epicentre of the outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
In Newfoundland and Labrador, three ingredients made for explosive COVID-19 outbreak

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — With her classes, three part-time jobs and a… Continue reading

A passenger places a tag on luggage at the departure terminal at Toronto Pearson Airport, in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, May 24, 2019. The economic and life disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many recent immigrants to leave Canada and return to their countries of origin, where they have more social and familial connections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
COVID-19 pandemic prompts recent newcomers to leave Canada for their home countries

OTTAWA — The economic and life disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic… Continue reading

Most Read