Budget hotel transformed into first Canadian home for Syrian refugees in Calgary
Published on: February 29, 2016 | Last Updated: February 29, 2016 7:57 AM MST
A toddler eagerly explores the lobby of a Calgary hotel with her older brothers as their parents and grandma wait for the plastic keys to their first temporary home in Canada.
Hotel key cards in hand, the family soon carries their few possessions — a couple of bags and a fleece Red Cross blanket — down a dimly lit hallway to a small room with two tidy beds and framed mountain landscapes on the walls.
The Hashma family will spend their first days and nights in Calgary at this budget hotel alongside more than 100 other government-sponsored Syrian refugees.
The number of newcomers staying at the hotel fluctuates daily as Syrian families such as the Hashmas arrive directly from the airport by taxi, and others are moved from the six-floor building into permanent accommodation across the city. The average hotel stay is 15 days. Larger families often stay longer because finding housing can be challenging.
As the 14-month-old girl and her six and eight-year-old brothers play with their grandma’s wheelchair in the hallway, their parents are debriefed on life at the hotel by an Arabic-speaking staff member with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
There’s a play area for kids in room 122, a health clinic in room 130 and a catered meal of salad, rice, kebabs, tomatoes, bread and yogurt waiting for the family in a sunny lunchroom down the hallway.
“Canada is good,” says Mr. Hashma, through a translator.
The hotel, which Postmedia has chosen not to name because of concerns about guest safety, has been transformed by CCIS staff into a makeshift resettlement centre. It’s the largest temporary refugee accommodation the non-profit organization has ever established.
It’s a big operation, and signs that dozens of families new to Canada are living in the facility among everyday hotel guests are everywhere. Arabic echoes through the long hallways as kids run to the lunchroom. The desk in a small office CCIS uses on the main floor is hidden behind a maze of diaper boxes, jugs of juice and boxes of bananas, apples and oranges. Staff ordered a plethora of fresh fruit when sick children started arriving at the hotel.
In a room in the basement, the standard hotel furniture has been removed and replaced by tiny, brightly coloured chairs; the walls covered with children’s artwork. A sign at the building’s front desk has been translated into Arabic. A certified lifeguard regularly visits the facility’s swimming pool to supervise organized swim times. Every day, hundreds of ethnic meals are brought in by a caterer and served for lunch and dinner in a small hotel dinning room.
“We had to reorganize this hotel for the needs of these people,” says Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of CCIS, while walking through the hotel on a recent weekday visit.
“It’s not perfect but we’re doing whatever we can to make their stay more pleasant.”
More than 900 Syrian refugees — almost evenly split between government-sponsored and privately sponsored categories — have landed in Calgary since the Trudeau government pledged to rapidly resettle 25,000 Syrians across the country by the end of February.
After risking their lives to seek refuge, every government-sponsored refugee from Syria who settles in Calgary goes directly to this hotel or the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre — a facility with space for 75 people and on-site amenities, including a playground, laundry and health clinic.
The resettlement centre in northeast Calgary has long provided temporary accommodation to government-assisted refugees, but the hotel was a quick fix, established by CCIS as the organization prepared to spend just a few months re-settling twice the number of government-sponsored refugees it would typically help in an entire year.
In less than three months, the Calgary hotel and existing resettlement centre have seen 590 government-sponsored Syrians come through the doors.
“We’re crazy busy,” says Afewerki Ocbasilassie, a CCIS resettlement and integration counsellor. “We do everything. Everything.”
Some newcomers land in Calgary on late-night flights, meaning CCIS staff work around the clock. Daylight hours are filled with a multitude of tasks, including hosting orientation sessions at which families learn the basics of Canadian life and go over topics such as housing, transportation, hygiene, education and Canadian law. Paperwork is filled out so parents can get the needed documentation to enrol their children in school, get a bank account and see a doctor.
“What we have to do in two weeks (at the hotel) is prepare them to be able to function on their own with limited support,” Birjandian says.
It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding says Ocbasilassie, who knows first-hand some of the challenges these newcomers will face.
Ocbasilassie moved to Calgary as a refugee from Sudan six years ago and is proud he now works for the same non-profit organization that helped him settle in Canada.
“I’d been there as a client, I’d been there as a volunteer and now I’m working with them,” says Ocbasilassie. “I know what my clients need because I was a client once.”
The needs of government-sponsored refugees arriving from Syria range widely. Some come with almost no possessions and are given basic toiletries and donations of clothes and toys at the hotel-turned-resettlement centre. Some come hungry after weeks of irregular meals in refugee camps. Many need emotional support, and bonds quickly form among the newcomers and CCIS staff.
“We sit with them, we listen to their problems. We listen to what they’ve gone through, what they’re fearing in the future,” says Bindu Narula, a refugee and immigration issues strategist at CCIS who is co-ordinating the efforts at the Calgary hotel.
The makeshift resettlement centre is paid for by funding available through the federal government’s Resettlement Assistance Program. Birjandian said the bills for the hotel operations are $80 per room, per night (a minimum of three people stay in each room) and about $25 per person, per day, for food.
A contract with the hotel was established late last year, and Syrians started arriving Jan. 1.
“We had no idea who was coming at first,” Birjandian said. “Suddenly we saw this family of 10 people with eight children, all aged 12 and under.”
By the second week in January, 150 people, more than half of them young children, were staying at the hotel. With no playground at the facility, many kids were entertaining themselves in the hallways and lobby. The hotel provided CCIS with a downstairs room where a Kids’ Club was established. Staffed six hours a day by paid CCIS employees and volunteers, the space gives children an opportunity to learn basic English, read, draw and play before they move from the hotel and enrol in school.
“We have a lot of kids that haven’t had any education,” says Narula. “If you’re six years old, you’ve been in war for the past four. Chances are you haven’t gone to school and, if you have, it’s been a refugee camp and it’s hit or miss.”
Seham Shaban, a CCIS employee who teaches children at the Kids’ Club, writes the name of each child staying in the temporary lodging on a file folder and fills the folder with the drawings and writing they create during their stay. When each child leaves for their new Calgary home, the folder offering a snapshot into their first days in Canada goes with them.
“One day a father came to me and started crying,” Shaban says. “He said the hotel was the first time he’d seen his 12-year-old son writing or reading.”
The large number of young children staying at the hotel has also spurred CCIS staff to arrange frequent field trips, including outings to the Calgary Zoo and sports facilities.
On a recent weekday, dozens of children and a few moms line up outside the hotel and follow CCIS employee Michaela Hiebert on a walk to a nearby recreation centre for a workshop with Green Fools Theatre Society.
At the centre, laughter fills a large gym as the kids spend two hours dancing, playing, watching a magic show, and trying out circus props, including stilts and diabolo toys with help from theatre staff.
“It’s the most rewarding work you’ll ever do,” Hiebert says of hanging out with Calgary’s newest young residents. “These kids are so happy all the time. They have lots of energy and lots of love.”
Back at the hotel, CCIS staff receive a surprise visit from two young adults who moved with their siblings and parents from the hotel into a permanent home four days earlier.
In their first trip outside of their new Calgary community, the young men have navigated Calgary’s public transportation system set on finding their way back to the hotel. They tell staff they want to come back and volunteer at the hotel and help fellow refugees.
Hugs and hearty laughs are exchanged as the men reunite with the only faces they know in Calgary — the CCIS staff who made them feel welcome during their first weeks in this city.