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Refugee response group preps for arrival of first Syrian family

Widow, adult children and cousin expected to arrive in April



After weeks of preparation, Whistler is almost ready to receive its first family of Syrian refugees.

And at a March 3 meeting, the Whistler Refugee Response group officially confirmed the news.

A widowed mother, her three adult children and a cousin are expected to arrive in Whistler within the next month.

"Obviously I'm over the moon," said board member Sarah Morden after the meeting.

"This is what we've been working for, right? It's to help people get out of a dire situation."

The adult family — ages 56, 31, 30, 30 and 23 — is not what the group had anticipated. Original planning was around the expectation of a traditional nuclear family — mom, dad and three young children — and the revelation that the family consisted entirely of adults led to some discussion amongst the group.

"I understand why they qualify, and I have total empathy for that, but I wonder if they're almost in a different category than what we envision as refugees," one response group member said.

"These are five adults that surely can, with a little bit of assistance, earn their own living and get on with their life."

But the fact that they're adults means they may not need as much support, another noted.

"I think that this family maybe speeds up our timeline in that they are five adults and they can come here and they can all be (climatized) and therefore we don't need to support them for as long in that way.

"So potentially we could host another family that much more quickly."

The family — currently in Lebanon — consists of three females and two males. Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church, which is partnering with the response team, recommended the family to the Whistler Refugee Response group. They have been screened by the United Nations and Canadian immigration officials on the ground.

Victim impact statements from the family were read aloud at the meeting, spelling out the persecution they faced from Islamic extremists as Syrian Christians.

The mother is a recent widow, and the cousin was abducted by terrorists in 2015 and held for three days before being released on $5,000 ransom.

The young men have been pressured to join both sides of the fight, and the entire family has received death threats.

"I do agree that most of our hearts are pulled by stories of young kids, but that doesn't mean that adults don't need help as well," someone noted.

"And I do think that they actually do have the chance to integrate quite well into the community and then create that network of a community should they choose to stay in the long run."

One attendee at the meeting said they had "gone full circle" during the discussion.

"I think I had this original vision of maybe a sort of nuclear family of a mom, dad and two little kids, but then I heard this situation and I think it's probably got more chance of success actually," they said.

The family will be permanent residents when they land, meaning they're eligible to find jobs just as soon as they're settled.

A vote was taken at the end of the meeting on whether to accept the family or wait for another, and by a majority show of hands the group chose not to wait.

"We've got our family!" someone said, to applause all around.

A house has been donated for the family to stay in, language lessons have been offered and more than $20,000 has been donated by 14 groups and individuals — but there is still more fundraising to do.

"At this point now it's just becoming very real," Morden said after the meeting.

"We have a lot of work to do to set these people up for success in this town."

The group has set up a website, as well as a Facebook page (Whistler Refugee Response) and a GoFundMe page to accept donations. The GoFundMe can be found at

Cheques can also be dropped off at Municipal Hall or Our Lady of the Mountains.

In-kind donations will soon be accepted as well. Follow the group's Facebook page to see how you can help.

"Raising money to help get these people on their feet is huge, so the GoFundMe page, the cheques to the municipality or cheques to the church is really helpful," Morden said.

"And even just being positive. I think that's really, really important too, is making the family that comes here feel welcome."