>> Erica Gies

In 2007, I visited Syria and saw awe-inspiring archeological sites with more than 10,000 years of human history. But what really sticks with me is the intense warmth and hospitality of the Syrian people. People ran out of their homes and businesses, thrusting food and drink into my hands, saying, “You are welcome!”

Strolling the streets of Homs on a summer night, I was surprised to find shops open at 1 a.m. to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, and women and children buying food and sweets. In Damascus and Aleppo I met educated, cosmopolitan people who wanted to talk to me about the economic hardships of absorbing 1.5 million Iraqi refugees from the U.S.-led war—but without rancor or blame.

Now there’s a chance for Fernwoodians to make Syrians feel equally welcome. A neighborhood group that I’m involved with is working together to sponsor a family of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war and to help them settle in Fernwood.

Called Fernwood Sponsors Refugees, we are partnered with Fernwood’s own Casa Maria Emergency Housing Society, an NGO funded by monthly dues paid by members of the Mitraniketan Housing Co-op on Balmoral Street. “For over 30 years, Casa Maria has housed more than 200 families in its fully furnished apartments,” said Laura Johnston, president of Casa Maria. “Now it has set aside an apartment for a Syrian refugee family of four, who may stay there for up to three years.”

Another partner, the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), is authorized by the Canadian government to facilitate refugees’ immigration to Canada. ICA has long partnered with Casa Maria to home people in need and to help them learn how to navigate life in Canada.

Renee Alfaro’s family once took refugee at Casa Maria. They are now residents of Mitraniketan Housing Co-op, and Renee is a member of our group. She says it can be overwhelming to start over in a new place after fleeing trauma. For her, moving straight into Casa Maria was reassuring. “It was a lot less stressful to come here, knowing there was a community that was opening their arms,” she said. That’s something to remember as Fernwood prepares to welcome more refugees, said Alfaro: “The most important thing is to be present to what they’ve been through and seen.”

With support from the Mitraniketan Housing Co-op, a Central Middle School bake sale, and private donors, Fernwood Sponsors Refugees has raised about $14,000 in cash and in-kind donations toward its goal of $40,000. If you or your business can donate funds or other support or organize a fund-raising event, please contact Fernwood Sponsors Refugees at fernwoodsponsors@gmail.com and visit our website at fernwoodsponsors.wordpress.com. All donations will go towards supporting Syrian refugees and are 100 percent tax deductible.