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London opens arms to refugees
By Stephanie Cesca
As the war in Kosovo continues, Canada has extended its arms by welcoming 5,000 refugees to begin new lives 200 of which will arrive in London within the next few months.
Debbie Mitchell, chair of the London Ecumenical Refugee Settlement Alliance, said her organization will work with three London churches to sponsor and settle the refugees into the city.
The alliance has had several meetings over the past week in order to prepare for the incoming refugees and also to encourage and welcome the volunteers which are needed.
"Our meeting last week was very encouraging," Mitchell said. "There were over 100 people who wanted to help."
Mitchell said volunteering would be a 24-month commitment and although more volunteers are still needed, many people in the London community have already come together and brainstormed ideas as to how and where the refugees will be settled once they arrive.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to learn about someone else's culture and teach your own," she added.
Michael Casasola, director of the refugee office at the Catholic Diocese of London, said he has been busy promoting sponsorship of the refugees throughout the city. "The plan is to integrate them into the community," he said. "It's very much a community response."
Casasola explained integration into the community may take on many forms including familiarizing the refugees with the various services they may need, such as banking.
Casasola major concern, however, is the refugees may experience severe mental trauma upon their arrival. He said he hoped the volunteers would become friends with the refugees and thus offer the emotional support they may need.
Mary Williamson, director of The Cross Cultural Learners Centre Alliance, an organization which also works with refugees, said when the Kosovars arrive, her organization will do its best to ensure a friendly community welcomes them.
"We offer a full-range of services that are funded under Citizenship and Immigration Canada," Williamson said. Orientation will be provided as will English classes, interpreters and help with accommodation arrangements.
These services including housing, however, will not be the financial responsibility of the volunteers. "The government of Canada will pay for their accommodations up to two years," Casasola said.
Guy Lajoie, a parish coordinator in London and one of the volunteers who will be taking refugees into his church, said this opportunity was a chance for him to extend a helping hand. "All we're trying to do is respond to a need," he said. "It's part of the gospel to look after the poor and right now they are the poor."
Huguette Shouldice, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said they are preparing for the refugees at the present time, although there is no set date when they are expected to arrive. "What is happening now [is] we're matching the refugees and the sponsors," she said.
Although 5,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Canada, Shouldice said she was doubtful the number would increase in the future. "There hasn't been a request for more."