“Everyone here is a newcomer”: Fort McMurray readies for Syrian refugees

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RYAN JACKSON / EDMONTON JOURNAL

Canada’s going to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees within the next three months, and at least a handful are going to find their way up to Fort McMurray, where they’ll try to build new lives in the heart of Canada’s struggling oil industry.

Jennifer Best, the Senior Director of Community Programs at the YMCA of Wood Buffalo, doesn’t pull any punches when she says that life in Fort McMurray for them won’t be easy. “They’re coming here and they’ll think there’s lots of jobs,” she says, but the nosedive in oil prices has taken those jobs away.

It’s tough enough for refugees and immigrants to find jobs in Fort McMurray when things are booming, Best notes. Most don’t have strong enough English skills or Canadian work experience to find the jobs they want or were qualified for back home.

But now, Best notes, it’ll be even harder for them to find jobs. “They’ll find the streets aren’t exactly paved with gold,” she warns.

Syrian refugees in Fort McMurray are going to have to deal with some unique challenges, Best says. Aside from the crippling cold and the short winter days – where the sun sets before four o’clock in the afternoon – everything from housing and food to clothes and coffee is more expensive in Fort McMurray.

Best also laments that Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has a limited presence in Fort McMurray, which makes it difficult for refugees and migrants to access the services they need. The nearest CIC office is down in Edmonton, a drive of more than five hours along the now-twinned Highway 63, though CIC does offer occasional regional services in Fort McMurray every few months.

“Refugees and migrants here have to do a lot of navigating services on their own,” says Best.

Syrian refugees might be surprised at the warm welcome they receive in the middle of winter, and Ramazan Nassery can attest to this.

Nassery is the coordinator of the YMCA’s Immigrant Settlement Services, and knows the pain of fleeing a war-torn country all too well. He fled Afghanistan in the 1990s via Pakistan and Indonesia, eventually making his home in Fort McMurray eight years ago.

Fort McMurray is filled with newcomers from all parts of Canada and the world, and because of this Nassery says he’s always felt welcome here. “Everyone here is a new person in a new place,” he says.

At around ten per cent of Fort McMurray’s population, the city’s Muslim community will play a central role in welcoming Syrian refugees. The existing Fort McMurray Islamic Centre, Markaz-Ul-Islam, is far too small to deal with the existing Muslim population. A new $50-million, 10-acre Islamic centre is now being built on the outskirts of town, where it will have two Christian churches as next-door neighbours. These days Friday prayers at Markaz-Ul-Islam have to be split into three different groups an hour apart, so they use a nearby Catholic high school gymnasium for Friday prayers whenever they can.

Best notes that with the lack of formal supports in a small city, and with the lack of a permanent CIC presence, the Muslim community’s support for newcomers is critical. She also notes that the Muslim community in Fort McMurray is quite diverse, and Muslims from places like Lebanon, Pakistan and Somalia peacefully share the same space despite their cultural and doctrinal differences.

Asked whether she’s worried about a backlash against Syrian refugees, Best doesn’t hesitate. “No. I’m not worried about any backlash,” she says.

Nassery, reflecting on his own experience as a refugee, isn’t worried about a backlash either. “It hasn’t crossed my mind, honestly,” he says.

Even though it’ll be a challenge, Fort McMurray may well prove to be a surprisingly model home for those Syrian refugees who do make their way up north.

“Whether you’re a permanent resident, a refugee, a migrant, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You don’t get treated any differently here,” Best says. “There’s a greater level of tolerance and acceptance because of the broader need to survive up here.”

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