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Let's help Whistler to become home

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This is traditionally a time when we think of family and friends and the relationships we have in our lives — well, at least most adults do: the kids are thinking about what is under the tree.

Many people are thinking about the charities they support and the good they can do with their donation dollars, others donate hours to causes close to home in order to make a difference.

For close to 80 people last week, that desire to help took them to a meeting organized by the Resort Municipality of Whistler to organize how Whistler can help support a Syrian refugee family or families.

This is not a simple process and much groundwork has to be done before their arrival.

There has been much comment on social media asking people to consider whether Whistler is really the kind of place that a Syrian refugee family should come to — a glamorous all-season vacation destination that caters to tourists who are trying to escape from the real world.

Are we even capable of dealing with the type of settlement issues refugees from a war arrive with?

These are important questions to answer, and discussions around them must be had by the local agencies, schools and others who will find themselves on the front line of helping to settle the refugees.

But these concerns are not enough reason for Whistler to decide not to be part of the help being offered to the Syrian refugees.

As a rural setting we have had little to no experience in dealing with the issues a refugee family may come with. They are likely to need more than just a roof over their heads. They will need emotional, psychological and health support as well. They will need guides to help them find their way in a new community, in a new country with different traditions and a different language.

Many will suffer from mental health issues.

According to a Canadian Press story, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said: "Mental health concerns are amongst the concerns that we expect to see.

"We believe that as soon as they can get to their ultimate destination, that will be the better."

That same story quoted Dr. Morton Beiser, a psychiatric epidemiologist based at St. Michael's Hospital, who said that one of the highest-risk populations is young people — research indicates up to 20 to 50 per cent of refugee children can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Do we have resources in place to help with these needs?

The refugee families will be homesick. They may be lonely.

And they will not be prepared for our winter weather.

They have now lost two lives — the one they fled from in Syria and they one they were forced to build while trying to find a new home.

They have left a place with next to nothing and are coming to a country of plenty, but where their existence is dependent on help from others — a challenge for anyone trying to maintain their self-respect, dignity, and even some customs that Canadians may feel uncomfortable with.

Will they experience racism, negativity and ignorance from less than welcoming people? Probably.

But these are not people looking for a handout — they are fleeing a war and,given a chance, the hope is that they will find in Canada a place they can call home, despite any intolerant behaviour they experience.

For the most part the refugees are coming from camps in Lebanon where they have been surviving for years after fleeing in the millions from the war in Syria.

The United Nations estimates that roughly nine million Syrians have been displaced by war since 2011, a number that can only rise as fighting in Syria continues unabated.

As Whistler plans how it will help, a realistic perspective is necessary, but so is an optimistic one.

As a community we have a long track record of stepping up when needed and while more planning may be involved in this outreach that is not a reason to doubt that we can do it.

Whistler is always ready to be called home.

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