BEYOND THE HEADLINES: No free ride for refugees

It’s unfortunate that refugees have become a lightning rod again at Vernon city hall.

On Monday, Coun. Scott Anderson went head-to-head with his colleagues over providing free swim and transit passes to a refugee family brought here by a church.

“Refugees are sponsored by organizations,” said Coun. Scott Anderson, who raised similar concerns last year.

“Why are we as a city putting money into folks who are sponsored when others don’t have this support?”

Now Anderson is correct that refugees are sponsored by churches, individuals or non-profit groups, but they are responsible for rent, food and all other living expenses, particularly if federal funding is not available. These groups raise this money and it’s extremely limited given housing costs.

Anderson also makes the argument that refugees are getting something that others can’t.

“Refugees are not handicapped or mentally challenged. They have supports that others do not,” he said.

However, the reality is that the city, with taxpayers’ money, has a long history of helping those who have financial resources, albeit limited.

In the last three years, United Way has received 2,000 transit tickets annually which are distributed to residents in need, particularly in emergency situations, while the Vernon School District and the city fund a program so developmentally challenged students receive transit travel training.

In terms of recreation, people with a permanent disability can receive a 25 per cent discount for select programs at the Vernon Recreation Complex, while there is a 25 per cent discount for residents 65 and older to purchase a swim, fitness gym or skating pass. And for people receiving financial assistance from the provincial or federal governments, they may receive a 75 per cent discount on select programs such as public swimming, the weight room and Aquafit classes.

In 2014, the discount for recreation was expanded for children and youth with disabilities.

“This recreation discount pass is changing lives and we are very thankful to have this program in our community,” said Annette Sharkey, with the Social Planning Council, at that time.

And that’s also the goal for the refugees, who if you get past that label, are actually our new neighbours.

No matter the country of origin, they were forced out of their homes by violence and, in many cases, they spent years living in camps in extremely challenging conditions. Many Canadians express concerns about the refugees’ ability to integrate into our society because of cultural and linguistic differences but one way of resolving that is exposing them to the community at large. Transit allows them to explore their new home while accessing English classes and ultimately going out to find a job.

Subsidies for accessibility programs are firmly entrenched in the city budget and are available to eligible residents annually, whereas those for refugees are one-time for a year (in the case of the family approved Monday, it’s only for the remainder of 2017 or $400).

Yes there is a price to be paid for helping refugees, but one thing is clear, they aren’t jumping the queue or getting any special favours at the expense of those in need.