N.B. settlement workers preparing for arrival of hundreds of Afghan refugees

·3 min read
New Brunswick Refugee Clinic executive director Akram Ben Salah says volunteers are on alert and ready to help resettle refugees. ( - image credit)
New Brunswick Refugee Clinic executive director Akram Ben Salah says volunteers are on alert and ready to help resettle refugees. ( - image credit)

Settlement agencies in New Brunswick have already contacted their volunteer bases and are preparing for the arrival of Afghan refugees, possibly this winter.

On Monday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the government is expanding its Afghan resettlement program, committing to resettle 20,000 more "in the coming weeks."

The Taliban seized Kabul by force on Sunday. People continue to flee the country, overcrowding airports and in one harrowing instance, clinging to the outside of a plane as it took off.

Akram Ben Salah, executive director of the New Brunswick Refugee Clinic, said he expects 400 to 600 refugees from Afghanistan could come to New Brunswick, based on the province's experience with Syrian refugees several years ago.

In 2015, Trudeau promised to bring about 20,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. Hundreds of them settled in New Brunswick, which at the time welcomed the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita.

Ben Salah said no one knows for sure how many refugees will settle in each province, as that decision is made by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada.

But in the face of what he said is a "humanitarian crisis," local agencies are preparing for many.

"I think that we are more ready now. We have lived experience, the expertise of a whole sector and especially the settlement service providers," he said.

"I know for a fact that a huge database of volunteers is already alerted and is ready to roll up their sleeves and contribute."

Housing concerns, lessons learned

Ben Salah does have concerns about the availability of permanent housing.

He said many Syrian newcomers had trouble finding affordable housing, especially in the first year when they were still on government assistance and could not afford housing for their typically larger families of five or six people.

The average family structure for Afghanis is similar to the rest of the Middle East, Ben Salah said.

"That has proven, historically, to be challenging," he said.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Settlement coordinator Ben Bouchard of the Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area is scouting out housing options.

He thinks help might be needed from the provincial and municipal governments, such as by making housing subsidies more attractive for landlords or making rural areas more accessible by extending bus routes.

"These are things that could go a long way," Bouchard said.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Premier Blaine Higgs said he's been told as many as 800 Afghan refugees could land in New Brunswick, but said he doesn't know what the final number will be.

"We hope to find all the details around that next week or so and and then we'll go from there," Higgs said.

"But we will have to be addressing the housing needs... as we've done before with refugees."

More volunteers needed

The Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area is not ready to accept donations just yet, but will soon be putting out a call for furniture and other household items, said Elizabeth Jonah, the association's community connections manager.

Jonah said the existing volunteer base is already stepping up, but that even more volunteers are needed – especially people who can interpret Dari, Pashto and Farsi and who are willing to be partnered with a newcomer family.

"It's a person in the community – a face that they're going to recognize that they will work with throughout. And that means a lot," she said.

Ben Salah said the province's existing Afghan community is very small, and so is unable to provide much support.

But there are many other volunteers who are ready to do what they can to welcome Afghan refugees and help them get settled, he said.

"The Afghan refugees will, from this perspective, definitely be well taken care of when they land."

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