Interview with Saleem Spindari
By Deborah Jenkins
Saleem Spindari serves as manager of Refugee Settlement Support Projects at MOSAIC, a multilingual non-profit organization assisting immigrants and refugees in their integration into Canadian society.
How did you come to work with MOSAIC?
Oh, I loved MOSAIC from day one! I came to Canada as a refugee and with a background in translation, interpretation, and teaching. I came to MOSAIC to get one of my documents officially translated and I was amazed by the number of services and programs that they offer. Couple of years later, I started working at MOSAIC. Supporting refugees and immigrants is close to my heart. They pretty much pay me to do what I like.
What is working well in terms of resettlement and long term inclusion? I know you have mentioned the employment program has been really successful.
The whole community is mobilizing to support newcomers and everyone is coming up with new ideas to support their settlement and integration into the community. Busy professionals are putting resources together. University students are fundraising. Neighbors are joining each other to sponsor refugees. High school students are going silent for a day to raise funds. Elementary students are preparing care packages for refugee kids. Everybody is a part of this big movement. It is beautiful. If I wanted to imagine something, then this would be exactly it. It makes our life and our work much easier.
How are refugee communities experiencing life after resettlement in terms of housing, jobs, education, and civic participation?
It varies. They have a strong hope of returning to their country of origin. Many of the refugees here still have family members waiting in other countries. At MOSAIC we find private sponsors for refugees who have family members in British Columbia. The community feels that the community would be richer by having different cultures here so people practice their own cultures, religions and beliefs without any fear. But as some refugees’ social statuses changes it affects their morale and leads go to a depression cycle.
Everything is new to the refugees. It takes them a while to familiarize themselves with the new culture. Families must adjust to role changes. Women may go to work sooner than the men and children may translate for their parents. These are some of the challenges they face but employment has been great because many people are offering job opportunities for refugees. The economy is great in Canada and in British Columbia in particular.
Where are systems or policy opportunities to innovate in the refugee resettlement process?
The government told people to rise up to support refugees. The people rose but now the government cannot accommodate all of the requests. The federal government is trying their best to support refugees and bring them here but people have begun to feel they are not doing enough. I think this is where the advocacy piece is key.
The advocacy groups are innovative in their ways of asking for change. If the federal government is supportive then it trickles down to the provincial and municipal governments, and vice versa. The local cities organize refugee forums to bring people to have a conversation around what needs to happen and how to do that. I think our advocacy work is becoming much easier and we see more of a response because of this.
Housing is a big issue in Vancouver, not only for newcomers but for everyone. For example, many of the groups welcoming Syrian refugees did not expect to welcome so many big families. But it has been wonderful to see that people are being really creative and try to address those challenges. A credit union offered 7 year interest free loans to individuals remodeling their houses and offering rental units to refugees. A retired couple whose children were away attending universities offered four bedrooms to take in refugees. The challenges are there but it is much easier to deal with them because there is a collective response.
Every time I think an initiative cannot be topped something else will come up and more creative people will come forward. I have been really overwhelmed with the generosity of everybody in the community.
How might Canadian and US communities and stakeholders work together to grow a culture of welcoming refugees?
In Canada, people celebrate each other’s differences which enriches our communities and allows everyone to take part. We could learn many good lessons from the States and the States could learn at least this lesson from us.
When we had a more right leaning government we faced many challenges because of the way they stereotyped refugees. Building fear in people did not lead to a solution so the government changed the national conversation about refugees and focused more on housing affordability and helping. This helped us come together as a community. I think in the United States, the outcome would be much better if they changed some of those types of conversations.
When those conversations happen on a national level then it will be easier for people to follow. Ordinary people rely heavily on the media and whoever is the loudest speaker.
That was my last question. I have really enjoyed visiting Vancouver and have noticed that it seems like there is less prejudice in Vancouver than in the cities I have been to in the States.
In Canada, a Jewish synagogue sponsored three Muslim Syrian refugee families. I do not know if this would happen anywhere else. Each party was suspicious why the other was helping. They put aside their fears, uncertainties and suspicions and said “we will help anyone”. We have Chinese Christians who sponsored a Muslim family. The first thing they told them is “the closest mosque to your house is this and we rented this house for you because it is closer to your community and there is a Halal meat store where you can buy your own ethnic groceries and this the mosque, you can actually go and walk there”. I think this shows how communities are really supportive of each other.
MOSAIC is a multilingual non-profit organization assisting immigrants and refugees in their integration into Canadian society.