Victoria's 'fantastic' act of generosity aids soon-to-arrive refugees

As sponsors of incoming Syrian refugees scramble to find them accommodation, one group is celebrating an act of generosity that will provide housing for a family of five due to arrive here next week.

The History Refugee Committee, made up of people associated with the University of Victoria’s department of history and their friends, has secured a “homey” two-bedroom apartment with the help of Abstract Developments, said group member Kim Walker.

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Although the standard arrangement involves sponsorship groups covering only a year of rent, Abstract is offering a rent reduction for a minimum of two years.

“It’s fantastic,” said group member Elizabeth Vibert, an associate professor of history at UVic. “We’re so grateful.”

Vibert said it was “a huge relief” to secure a residence in the region’s tight rental market (the vacancy rate for rental-apartments in the region is 0.6 per cent, compared with the national average of 3.5 per cent). The rental situation is leading some people to take unique steps for their refugees, she said,

“One group whose family is coming, they have no idea when, they’ve been renting an apartment since Jan. 1 because they could find one then and they thought: ‘Wow, we’d better get on this.’ So they’re paying months of rent without the family being here.”

Vibert said the family her group is sponsoring “fled Syria, literally in the dark of night, four years ago.”

From there, they made their way to Turkey, Vibert said.

She is hopeful more housing options will emerge for the growing number of Syrian refugees, similar to the one presented by Abstract.

“If that generosity and forward-thinking could be a model for other landlords in the city, that would be really wonderful,” Vibert said.

Abstract president and founder Mike Miller said he was happy to do what he could, adding that he has experience with many aspects of housing as a former board chairman for the Capital Region Housing Corp. He also knows people of Syrian descent.

“If I can be of help here, that’s the least I can do,” he said. “It helps support the community, it really sort of says something about Victoria, it’s a no-brainer for us.”

About 65 private-sponsorship groups such as the History Refugee Committee are in place in the capital region through the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria and the Anglican Diocese of B.C. Up to 200 refugees are expected from that source, with another 290 coming here as government-assisted refugees — those chosen based on their vulnerability and are supported by the government during their first year in the country.

The government-assisted refugees are all due to arrive by the end of the month, much more quickly than originally anticipated.

Finding a good home for the refugees meant a lot of phone calls and emails, Walker said, but everything turned out well and the apartment has amenities nearby.

“It just looked good. It was close to the mosque, it was new,” she said.

The key is having stability for the family the group is expecting, Walker said.

“They’ve already had years of upheaval,” she said. “This is where, I think, we need developers or apartment owners or rental companies to do what they can to help give these people stability.”

Walker said her group has raised more than $80,000 toward the refugee effort, enough to help another family, as well.

In the meantime, the Inter-Cultural Association is “banging on every door that we can” in an attempt to secure homes for the refugees, said executive director Jean McRae.

“We’ve had the landlords association at our meetings. I’m meeting with the public-housing people next week.”

A central place for people to register information about accommodation they can offer is in the works, and will likely be offered through the association’s website at icavictoria.org.

“We’ll put it out to the community so anybody who’s got space can respond to it.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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