Canadians have done a lot to make Syrian refugees feel welcome, but one man in Saanich has done a lot to make them feel at home.
When refugees started coming to Vancouver Island, Yasser Youssef, owner of the Fig Deli, prepared baskets filled with foods from their home country such as olive oil, baladi bread and flavourful dips. He got the idea after some regular customers who had sponsored a refugee family came into his store one day to talk about the refugee crisis.
“My customers were asking my opinion, since I come from that region, on what to have ready for these families who are just arriving,” said Youssef, who was born in Lebanon near the border with Syria.
“One of my customers said, ‘I’m a Canadian citizen. If I go to Lebanon or to Syria, would I find maple syrup there?’ We packed up some food – Syrian maple syrup, let’s say – and we said, ‘This is our gift to your family,’ and it snowballed from there.”
Youssef, who immigrated to Canada when he was 17, said he understands the feeling of homesickness and uncertainty that refugees feel when displaced from their homes. That was a big part of why he started making baskets for newcomers.
“You struggle and go through phases, but eventually, you settle in,” he said. “Any help that I received in the past, I really appreciate it and I still remember it.”
Word of Youssef’s generosity spread, not just throughout the community, but to the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. The ICA offers services for immigrants and refugees such as integration counselling, translation and interpretation, job search assistance and English classes.
“We’ve had a relationship with Yasser for quite some time now,” said Lauren Kelly, executive assistant with the ICA. “This was something that just appealed to him. This was his initiative that we were happy to partner in.”
Through that partnership, Youssef and the ICA have looked ahead to the next phase of supporting refugees by transitioning them to the workforce. They have proposed a 17-week project-based labour market training initiative to the provincial government, asking the Ministry of Labour to allocate some funding and recommending the ICA manage the program.
“Its main focus is on sales and service occupations, which kind of speak to a lot of backgrounds that people already have,” said Kelly, noting there are many skilled and educated refugees having difficulty finding work. “This would provide employment assistance as well as unpaid placement for six weeks of work experience.”
Youssef said there are challenges in integrating refugees into Canadian society, but he hopes programs like the one proposed will help newcomers settle and start to call Canada home.
“Any kind of comfort that we can provide to them right now and get them going, I think we will benefit from it as a community,” he said.