Whitehorse to welcome third family of Syrian refugees

A third family of Syrian refugees is coming to Whitehorse. The Omar family of four will be arriving in the territory at the end of March, and is being sponsored by the Riverdale Baptist Church.

A third family of Syrian refugees is coming to Whitehorse.

The Omar family of four will be arriving in the territory at the end of March, and is being sponsored by the Riverdale Baptist Church.

“They’re very motivated,” said Hillary Gladish, who’s helping to organize the sponsorship. “They’re very excited to come.”

The Omar family is Kurdish, and left Syria three years ago because of the ongoing civil war. The family has been living in Iraq since then.

Mohamed Omar has a PhD in geology and his wife, Shereen, has a bachelor’s degree in English literature and languages. Gladish said they’re both very fluent in English. Their two children, a girl and a boy, are three and four years old.

Gladish said she’s been corresponding with the couple by email, and they seem unfazed by her description of the climate in Whitehorse.

“They’re just really happy to be able to make a life somewhere else,” she said. “I think that living in Iraq has been very difficult for them.”

The Omar family will move into an apartment that’s been prepared for them in Riverdale. Gladish said the church is no longer actively fundraising, but is still looking for donations of clothing for the young girl and winter gear for Shereen.

The Riverdale Baptist Church has already sponsored one family of Syrian refugees, the Ahmet family, who arrived in September. Both they and the Aarafat family, sponsored by Yukon Cares, came to Whitehorse under Canada’s blended visa program. Under that program, the federal government provides up to six months of financial support, with private sponsors responsible for another six months.

But the Omar family is being privately sponsored by the Baptist Church, meaning there will be no contribution from the federal government. Gladish said the church has raised about $45,000 in donations, as well as $15,000 from Yukon Cares and $18,000 from the Yukon government, to support Syrian refugee families.

The church actually began the process of bringing the Omars to Canada before it applied to sponsor the Ahmet family, but the process has taken longer because there is no Canadian immigration office in Iraq. As a result, the federal government estimates it can take 53 months to process applications for private refugee sponsorships in that country. That could have meant years of waiting for the family.

But Gladish said the Canadian government ended up sending workers into Iraq to interview refugees, and the Omar family was able to get into the second group of people being interviewed.

The Aarafat family has now been in Whitehorse for more than a year, while the Ahmet family arrived six months ago today. Gladish said the Ahmets are doing well, though the cold weather took some getting used to when they first arrived.

“That was all they could talk about, how cold it was,” she said.

The parents, Yaser and Semra, are now taking English classes, and the children are in school, playing soccer and taking piano lessons.

Gladish said Yaser is working as a mechanic a couple of times a week, and Semra is hoping to work at a spa.

They’ve also been helping to prepare for the Omar family’s arrival.

“I think they’re quite eager to meet this new family,” Gladish said.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com