Wednesday, February 4, 2009

From Bhutan to Tri-City

Source: The Tri-City News

Local school officials and settlement workers are preparing for an influx of refugees from Bhutan expected to arrive in the Tri-Cities beginning in March.

A meeting is planned for Feb. 20 at Winslow Centre to bring school and community agencies together to figure out how to best meet the needs of refugee families who will be placed in low-cost housing, mostly in Coquitlam, and given the basics for starting a new life here.

“We’re trying to start a proactive process around bringing in a new community,” said Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISS).

The Tri-Cities has been identified as the primary location for the settlement of between 800 and 900 Bhutanese currently living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Friesen said he expects about 150 people, including about 60 school-aged children, to arrive between March and June, with the rest to follow in 2010 and ’11.

The Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese have been living in refugee camps since the mid 1990s because of a policy of de-nationalization in southern Bhutan. Friesen said the resettlement poses some challenges because he will only get two weeks notice before the first group of refugees arrives — not much time to find housing or hire a Nepalese-speaking settlement worker and train them.

Friesen must also educate community and school officials on what to expect and how to provide services to the first wave of Bhutanese to come to B.C. since the federal government committed to accepting 5,000 Bhutanese refugees between 2008 and 2013.

Julie Pearce, School District 43 assistant superintendent, said the Feb. 20 meeting is “a gift” for administrators, teachers and counsellors, who are focusing their attention on ways to support the refugee families. Six settlement workers hired last fall through the provincially-funded Settlement Workers in Schools program will be introducing the new students and their families to the school system.

Pearce said the district is also looking at ways to improve its services for all refugee families. Among the changes the district is considering is centralizing reception services for refugee families, doing a better job of tracking students through the school system and improving English language services to adults.

“This is all fairly recent for our district,” Pearce said. “We’re exploring some different kind of models.”

Friesen said the Tri-Cities were chosen to house the refugees because Surrey already has a large Nepalese population and it was believed the Bhutanese should have their own distinct community, and because of the mountainous geography, which is similar to the terrain in southern Bhutan.

According to ISS statistics, the Tri-Cities are the second largest destination after Surrey for refugees to B.C. Most refugees to this area are from middle eastern countries.

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