Unique centre welcomes refugees, immigrants

$24.5-million Victoria Drive complex offers array of services to newcomers

With each footstep, the visitor's eye is drawn to plaque after plaque set into the concrete entrance way of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.'s new "Welcome Centre."

All 18 plaques are written in a different language.

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In Spanish: Bienvenidos.

In Swahili: Karibu.

In Somali: Soo Dhowaada.

And so on.

The translation of each is "welcome."

The idea for what amounts to be both an art piece and a large, strategically placed concrete welcome mat was inspired by a similar installation Chris Friesen saw on a trip to a public plaza in Geneva. Amid the cobblestones in the old part of that city were various sayings, all lit up for pedestrians to see.

Chris Friesen
Chris Friesen. Photo Dan Toulgoet

"It was one of those ideas that came to me in the middle of the night," said Friesen, the society's director of settlement services, as he stood among the plaques Thursday and read out some of the various pronunciations of "welcome." “It will be kind of a quiz for folks to figure out which is which."

The attraction serves as a teaser to what is behind the doors of the six-storey, $24.5-million centre at Victoria Drive and East 10th Avenue.

The centre received its occupancy permit Monday — personally given to Friesen from Mayor Gregor Robertson — and opened its doors Tuesday. Tenants are expected to begin moving in next week.

Inside is Friesen’s dream realized. He proudly states there is no other facility in the world for newcomers —refugees, refugee claimants and immigrants — that offers such variety of services under one roof.

He lists them off: 18 self-contained apartments (with shared laundry) that can house 130 people, a health clinic, a pre-school, a playground, a drop-in centre for young people, English language programs, mental health counselling, support programs for victims of trauma, services for refugee claimants, government services related to social assistance and a bank.

REFUGEE CLAIMANTS

During the Courier’s visit, clients were participating in English language programs (one class was learning the provinces of Canada) and others were meeting with various service workers, including refugee claimant Khawja Farid Sediqi from Afghanistan.

Sediqi, a champion powerlifter, said he crossed the border last month from the United States into Canada, where he made a refugee claim. A worker from Settlement Orientation Services, or SOS, was assisting him with his claim when he spoke briefly to the Courier about the centre.

“I like it because the organizations are very good and very nice and in the same building,” said Sediqi, who currently resides in a downtown shelter.

refugee centre
Photo Dan Toulgoet

The goal of the new centre is to open up some of the apartments to claimants such as Sediqi, although government-assisted refugees are expected to be the primary tenants of the 18 units.

Kerstin Walter, SOS director, said having some housing on site will allow claimants to have access to all the services that might otherwise be spread across the city.

Walter gave the example that a client could get help with a welfare application before crossing the hall to open a bank account at Vancity, which donated $1 million to the centre and has a kiosk in the building. The credit union also placed an automated teller machine outside the centre.

"For the client, it's great to have a one-stop shop," she said, noting the advantage of being co-located with a variety of agencies, including the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture. "Settlement is so linked to mental health. If people don't have stable housing, which is settlement, they'll be anxious and it's going to be hard for them to be calm during their [Immigration and Refugee Board] hearing, if they're really stressed. So being together in one space, we can make sure we do the best for our clients."

The apartments at the centre are all named after an emotion or value such as “perseverance” or “optimism.” “Aspiration” is a four-bedroom suite on the fifth floor outfitted with bunk beds, two bathrooms and a full kitchen, with views of the North Shore mountains.

The same floor has two interlocking suites capable of housing a family of 16 people. Another suite is set up for people with disabilities, including those who are blind, deaf or mute.

Typically, the occupants will stay in an apartment for two to three weeks before moving to a permanent residence. Occupancy is expected to be steady as more refugees arrive in Vancouver.

SYRIAN WAVE SUBSIDES

The opening of the centre comes after Vancouver welcomed a wave of Syrian refugees during the fall and winter. That wave has subsided with all but three of 350 families having found permanent housing in the region.

About 1,300 Syrians and another 458 government-assisted refugees from Africa, Iraq and other countries are expected to arrive between September and December. Some, however, will arrive next week, coming straight from the Vancouver International Airport to the centre.

“Imagine, you’re coming from a tent in the Middle East or Africa to this,” said Friesen, standing inside one of the apartments.

refugee centre
Photo Dan Toulgoet

Friesen noted the families won't be as large as some of those that arrived over the last year. Fewer refugees with special needs will also be destined for Vancouver.

The new centre will replace the society’s original 70-bed “Welcome House” on Drake Street. The society sold the building to Covenant House but worked out a deal to lease the property until next March.

The 2400 Court Motel on Kingsway, which was up until a few months ago a thriving Syrian community of more than 200 people, will remain as temporary housing for refugees.

The other temporary housing locations, including Vancouver's Sandman, Marriott, Century Plaza and Landis hotels are empty of refugees. The Pendrell apartments will close to refugees later this month.

Funding for the new centre came from the sale of the society's Drake Street building, along with the society’s cash reserves, contributions from all three levels of government, a $1 million donation from Vancity and private donations.

Lord Byng students also raised $5,000 to pay for furniture at the centre's youth centre, which is outfitted with a television and foosball table.

SOCIAL COHESION

Near the end of the tour, Friesen stopped in one of the apartments to reflect on how he felt after five years of planning and construction of the centre to finally see the doors open.

refugee centre
Photo Dan Toulgoet

When he received the occupancy permit from the mayor, he told him he was going home to have a cold beer. The hard work will all be worth it, he said, when families begin arriving next week.

"It really takes the whole issue of social cohesion, immigrant integration — all of this — to a new height,” he said. "To find one centre where people so new to the country don't have to navigate all over the place and deal with all the complexities that comes with starting out in a new country, is great."

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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