Tri-Cities Refugee Support Forum

Wednesday, November 2, 2016
9:15 AM - 12:00 PM
Evergreen Cultural Centre
Coquitlam, BC


Keynote by
Alden E. Habacon

Good morning, everyone.

My name is Alden Habacon, I have the privilege of being your keynote for today’s forum. I’d like to thank Sylvia Ceacero and Wendy McColloch, the Co-Chairs of the Tri-Cities Local Immigration Partnership Council, for the invitation to be here today.

As Sylvia has already done, I’d also like to acknowledge that we are on the ancestral, traditional and unceded territory of the Halkomelem-speaking Kwikwetlem First Nation, also known as the Coquitlam Indian Band, who have lived here in community for thousands of years.

It’s only appropriate that in sharing stories about our efforts and programs towards integrating newcomers to our communities that we acknowledge the indigenous communities that have lived and thrived here since time immemorial.

It is my hope that our gathering this morning and the sharing that takes place honours their legacy and the generosity of their welcome.

I would also like to thank Mayor Richard Stewart and MLA Linda Reimer, for their opening comments and for being present. I’ve had the privilege to work in Coquitlam over the last four years, and have watched the commitment of the elected leadership invest time and resources towards creating a place that is socially sustainable. I can’t think of a more suitable place for this gathering.  

I have just enough time to provide some context and then share with you one big idea that I hope help to shape the rest of the rapid sharing that will take place today. You’ll notice that I have opted to not have visuals, but instead asked that pictures of refugee families be shown during my remarks, as a reminder of why we are here: family. Today is about supporting the human right to be a family, as well as the effort to bring these families into the the larger Canadian family.

Do you remember what the morale was around supporting refugees four years ago? If you don’t, I’ll remind you. It was dismal. It was deeply discouraging. Our federal government seemed to be doing everything to reduce the number of refugees coming to Canada, and then made it extremely difficult for us to support them. In 2012, our government cut-back their access to health care.

I’ll be honest with you, it was like I was losing my Canadian-ness. The idea that we would trade the investment into fighter jets for the divestment into human capital really affected me. And because of this, I was really thinking about where I could bring my family. I was for the first time considering immigrating out of Canada.

Despite this, cities worked hard to support refugees. Between 2013 and 2015, approximately 16% of Government-Assisted Refugees who came to B.C. settled in the Tri-Cities.

And then we had an election. And the horror of the refugee crisis in Syria punched us in the gut and became part of the nation’s consciousness. And Canada, to my great pride, responded appropriately. Compared to where we were four years ago, we are in a different galaxy.

Since November 2015, Canada has welcome over 33,000 Syrian refugees. Specifically, of the Syrian Government-Assisted Refugees who came to B.C. since last year, approximately 9% (around 185) have settled right here in Coquitlam. More than 12 Privately Sponsored (PSR) & Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) Syrian Refugees have come to the Tri-Cities and another 13 PSRs are currently destined for the Tri-Cities, because there is some experience here.  

Now, I remind us of this contrast to make a point.

Today’s coming together over the support of refugees, who have come from everywhere to the Tri-Cities, isn’t just about social justice. This effort feels right because this work, despite all the difficulty and layers upon layers of challenges—which we will get to talking about shortly—is about exercising what it means to be Canadian.

This isn’t about the economic benefit, or the return on investment. This is simply about putting Canadian values into practice. It’s an opportunity to look beyond ourselves, our privilege, at the world outside of Canada, and be an active bystander, as opposed to a passive one.

Is it inconvenient? Absolutely.

Is it expensive? Yes.

Is there risk involved? For sure.

But we were compelled to do it anyway. Because seeing that much human suffering reminded us that our communities have a soul. And that soul cannot live on LNG or tourism, it needs to be fed through the renewal of people.

My greatest hope today, is that today's sharing across organizations will also lead to the renewal of those working in the trenches.

You have been working hard, and some of you might be feeling a bit fatigued. Please don’t beat yourself up over that. It’s normal to be tired. This work demands a lot you.

Since the summer months, I have been hearing from settlement workers, not just here, that we may have bitten off more than we could chew. Some of us sensed that from the beginning. And the housing issues alone are evidence of that.

I want to say that, in fact, that’s perfectly OK.

A lot of really meaningful endeavours are far beyond our capacity. Being a parent, for example. In my own life, after SIX years of being a dad, I am convinced I was never ready either. But I don’t regret a day, an hour or a minute. Because the outcome is, and will be, beyond what I am humanly able to imagine.

And this work—supporting refugee families—is much the same.

Over the summer, I was invited to the Cowichan Valley by the Cowichan Intercultural Society to do some training and speaking specifically to the intercultural challenges that families and neighbours were having with some recently arrived refugee families. I want to share with you one of their stories.

A group of families had come together to sponsor a Syrian family.

Folks came together and did something amazing. They knew a large family was coming, and without having met them, they poured an enormous amount of sweat into refurbishing a house. A big house, in fact. They worked tirelessly to get it ready for this large Syrian family. Then they coordinated who would be the family’s drivers, who would be their guides through the city, etc.

It if takes a village to raise a child, they figured it would take at least a village to help this family.

And guess what? None of the preparation prevented them from being surprised.  

First surprise, this family had never lived in a five bedroom house. It was huge to them. The sponsors were shocked to discover that everyone had been sleeping in the same bedroom.

Now if you don’t know, Cowichan culture is all about backyard gardens. So, what neighbours did was encourage the family to start their own garden.

They donated seeds and vegetable plants, which if you think about it, is a really powerful and profound way of welcoming and integrating a newcomer family.

Here comes the second surprise: they never expected this family to plant the garden in the front yard. Nor did they expect them to use the neighbour’s fence to make the garden. Have you ever stopped to consider that a fence might be a cultural construct?

And then the surprise for everyone.

No one expected the families who had worked on getting the house ready, to feel so much entitlement towards the house itself. So how does a family ever feel truly welcome if they are constantly being watched by those who sponsored them?

I share this story because, first, it is funny. And I hope you are able to find the humour in some of the challenges we face. I encourage you to do so. It’s good for your mental health.

And, secondly, not only does this story parallel challenges here, but it reveals the greatest outcome of this work—that supporting people who are profoundly different from ourselves is often more self-revealing than anything else.

If you’re wondering, this family is doing well. And the community is figuring it out. A bit of trial and error, and some tension with the neighbours, but worth celebrating nonetheless.

Now, what else do we know about the refugees coming to B.C.?

Well, since November 2015, B.C. welcomed approximately 2,900 Syrian Refugees.

We know that approximately seven in ten Syrian refugees in B.C. are Government-Assisted Refugees. A much smaller 17% are Privately-Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) and 13% are Blended Visa Office-Referred Refugees (or BVORs).

And they are young: over half are under the age of 18. This is more so pronounced for Government-Assisted Refugees versus Privately-Sponsored ones. In fact, approximately 48% of Syrian Government-Assisted Refugees are children under the age of 13.

You’ve probably also guessed that they are also mostly dependents: almost three out of five Syrian Refugees to B.C. are dependants.

Are you seeing the paradox?

These are big families, needing a lot of support. And we are sending them to the cities where it is increasingly difficult for larger families to find big-enough places to live; and on top of that, we have a affordability/housing crisis that is affecting everyone.

We’ve got to figure this out because we are expecting hundreds of refugees to arrive in B.C. in the next eight weeks.

These numbers also showcase the biggest challenge to multiculturalism in the Lower Mainland, which is the arrival of newcomers in large blocks.

Our forty years of experience in doing multiculturalism has shown us that when people arrive in blocks, integration is exponentially harder. Subsequently, this unprecedented trend will push our pluralism to its limits.

Add to that the emerging needs of adequate service levels, mental health and trauma, cultural conflict, undiagnosed health needs, dental for children, literacy needs, and in some cases, the breakdown of support for privately sponsored refugees. It can sound somewhat overwhelming.

I want to remind everyone, that the end goal isn’t about helping these families thrive.

As I mentioned in the beginning of these remarks, this effort is a means to achieving a bigger goal, which is the creation of a civil society that we may not yet even be able to imagine. Much in the same way that I try to imagine my six-year-old as a twenty-six year old man, or as a father, and as a member of a community.

That’s the end goal. Everything we’re doing now is to set-up these families to be part of the solution for the even bigger challenges of the future.

So to help reframe what we’re trying to accomplish here, I want to focus on one big concept: regenerative design.

If this is a new concept to you, it is the idea that puts B.C. on the world map around environmental sustainability. Once upon a time, “sustainability” primarily meant doing “less harm”, having a smaller footprint. Environmental sustainability still is this, but we’ve also evolved this practice beyond conservation, to another more advanced concept of producing more net positive than negative.

As a tangible example, the greenest building in North America, which is in B.C., actually takes the exhaust from its neighbouring building and converts it into electricity. It captures the geothermal heat from beneath it to heat water. And it takes the used water and converts it into irrigation for the green roof. All in all, it produces more clean energy and water than it consumes. It is the world’s example of regenerative design.

You may not see it yet, but all of your work is the application of this concept onto community, in an effort to foster regenerative communities. And where we are successful, we will have established the capacity to produce more net positive than negative.

In those instances, we can say to the world, send us your sick, your broken, your traumatized and your illiterate. Send us your most needy. And in time, we will convert them into empowered, contributing and healthy members of our society and local community.

I believe we already envision ourselves as a regenerative community. And maybe we’re just struggling a bit with the reality of our limited capacity.

We gather today because our capacity is directly tied to our being at least the sum of our parts. There is no shortage of effort or activity, no shortage of will or compassion, but we fail to move in the same direction and in sync with each other. Partly because of our funding model, but also because of the sheer volume of people who need support.

We must be more than the sum of our parts. And to do so, we must first know what all those parts are. We have no choice but to function as a community of practice. And, we must continue to actively invest.

More families, more children, more need is coming.

Not just in the next year, but in the next twenty. When the sea-level has risen, and millions are displaced all over the Global South, we must be ready. This is our chance to get ahead of the tidal wave of migration that will reach our shores as the now inevitable result of global warming.

There is room for much innovation. But first, let’s connect these dots and also make sure we make room for the renewal of spirit.

On that note, I would like to thank everyone for being here today, and for committing as a community of practitioners, strategists, and planners to finding solutions that grow our capacity to be regenerative by first bringing us all closer together.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the morning.