Fernie Friends of Refugees started in 2012 and is continuing their work to settle refugees into the community. So far, they have settled one family in the area and are welcoming another on Dec. 10.
“Through the government, we can sponsor refugees to Fernie, so that is our primary job, is finding the family, or families, and bringing them here. And then we’re financially responsible for them for the first year that they are here and we are also responsible for helping them settle,” said Brittan Loberg, organizer and founder of the organization.
Loberg originally wanted to volunteer only to discover there was no one doing this kind of work in the area.
“I actually heard about East Kootenay Friends of Burma through an Internet site and asked about volunteering,” she said. “The lady who leads that, her name is Barb, she contacted me and said, ‘We don’t have anything happening in Fernie, but if you want to start a group, I will help you.’ And then it very quickly came together after that.”
Loberg said there is a team of six people working in the organization currently, including Kimberley Barden, who has been working with Loberg since the organization’s conception. Barden said the process of sponsoring a family can be cumbersome and complicated at times.
“It can be quite a slow process,” she said. “Our first family that we sponsored, which was almost three years ago, still hasn’t arrived yet. So it can be very slow, which is frustrating for us, but I’m sure even more so for them.”
Last March, Fernie Friends of Refugees welcomed their first family, a brother/sister duo from Eretria. The society is looking forward to welcoming a new family on Dec. 10, a 20 year old mother and her two-year-old daughter from the Congo.
The amount of support that a family can need is dependent on their personal situation and what factors they were exposed to in their native country.
“Culturally, depending on where they come from and [what] their previous experiences have been, can be a huge culture shock,” said Barden. “Then there can be a lot of emotional challenges, depending on if they come from a region where they have been exposed to war or personal violence. Whatever their personal story is, there can be a lot of issues related to that.”
With the current crisis in Syria causing an outpouring of refugees from the area, the state and welfare of refugees have been making headlines, Loberg and Barden noticed that more people are aware of refugees now more than ever before.
“It’s all of a sudden in the forefront of people’s minds and when you say the word ‘refugee’ people have a frame of reference,” said Barden. “I’ve definitely seen a shift in the last six months or so, where people are more interested and engaged, whereas before, people weren’t getting connected so easily because it was such a peripheral issue that they couldn’t relate to it very well.”
Both Barden and Loberg say that generally, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I have actually been surprised, we have had a fairly generally positive response from the community,” said Loberg. “I think it’s nice too, with Selma and Gebre coming, a lot of people met them, and so it’s nice to connect with the person and not just the issue. I’m hoping with bringing this next family into town, it will kind of gain momentum. It’s nice to build some of those relationships and remove people’s fears or misconceptions about the issues too.”
Loberg and Barden said Fernie Friends of Refugees would be interested in sponsoring a Syrian family to settle in the area, and are hoping to generate interest and support for the community to help them achieve that. They both cited the largest hurdle to settling a family in Fernie is finding affordable accommodation. Loberg sought out the help of her family to find accommodation for Selam and Gebrezghi Berhane when they arrived in March.
“With Selam and Gebre, who came, they moved in with a family in town, actually my parents, and they lived there until they got on their feet,” she said.
Other issues include finding employment and general support with warm clothing and household items to support new families.
Fernie Friends of Refugees is a constituent group of East Kootenay Friends of Burma, who helped to form the organization. Through the East Kootenay Friends of Burma, they are able to find and sponsor refugees more easily, allowing for them to focus their efforts on supporting the new families as they transition into a new community.
Anyone wanting to get involved with Fernie Friends of Refugees is encouraged to visit their Facebook page for more information.