Syrian families coming to Langley via private sponsorships are not the first refugees to be welcomed in this community.
In 2007, volunteers helped close to 350 Karen people fleeing the military government of Myanmar (Burma) start their lives over in Langley.
Many of the Karen people came from refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and had “very high needs,” recalls Lisa Sadler, a settlement worker for the Langley School District.
“They were transplanted from a jungle to a city and they lacked a lot of skills,” said Sadler, who was a full-time refugee volunteer at the time.
“Very basic things were very new to them.
“They didn’t know how to get money out of a bank account with a bank card, or know what to do with a Telus bill when it came in the mail.
“They would get food donated to them and they would open a can of tuna and not know what to do with it.
“I don’t think we had ever seen people with such high needs in such high numbers.”
Before coming to Langley, the first wave Karen refugees settled in Surrey in 2006, and faced a rough start.
The volunteers in Langley did what they could to make a smoother transition.
“Churches, people and groups in Langley got furniture for them and completely set up their houses. They had food in the fridge and that kind of thing,” Sadler said.
Regardless, there were still many unexpected challenges.
With refugees coming from a small region of Burma, there were hardly any people available who spoke both their dialect and English, to act as translators.
Many of the children were behind academically, and ESL programs in Langley did not have the capacity to take them in.
Their medical needs were extreme, and Sadler spent most of her time taking the refugees to doctor appointments and to Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.
“I think the issues that refugees face are very misunderstood,” she said.
“We can’t look at them as immigrants, we have to address their unique challenges.
“These can include trauma and mental health, which can impact everything from school to employment to a lot of different things.
“Immigrants have time to tie-up loose ends. They have time to finish up their business and be mentally prepared to move, where oftentimes refugees are fleeing danger.
“Refugees may have left everything behind. They may have lost family members. There’s huge gaps in education sometimes — years when there’s no access to education or health care.
“So I think even when they arrive here, it’s just so complex what they’re facing, from poverty to even family breakdown.”
As the Karen people continued to arrive, many faith-based groups began filling in the gaps until settlement services were formed.
Today, there are several groups in Langley available to help refugees, including the Promoting Community Through Kids in Sports (PuCKS) program, the Settlement Workers in Schools program and the Immigrant Services Society, which will “make a huge difference” for Syrian refugees, Sadler said.
Having privately sponsored Karen refugees in the past, Sadler says her experience “has been very rewarding.
“I have built some amazing friendships and I’ve heard some pretty powerful stories,” she said.
“And a lot of our youth are really thriving.
“Even though the circumstances are challenging for them, they are involved in their schools, and involved in community service projects.
“For me, it’s really rewarding and amazing to be working with them — it’s humbling.”