A group of residents from Qualicum Beach, B.C. spent several hours at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday evening anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Burmese refugee family they had privately sponsored.
Sitting on the ground at the arrivals gate the group of volunteers knew little about the people they were about to meet.
"We know that there is eight people — five children and three adults. We know that they're coming from a refugee camp in Thailand and we know that they wanted to come to Canada. That is all we know," said Carol Doering, one of the volunteers.
Interpreter Hserchri Trawgaye explains to the refugee family what is happening and where they will go next. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
"We're here wondering what they'll be like and they're probably thinking what we are going to be like" said Doering.
"I feel apprehensive, nervous, excited and curious about what will happen next and concerned for the family that this will be such an overwhelming process for them," said Chris Ferris, another volunteer and Qualicum Beach resident.
The youngest in the family is 4 years old and could not stop smiling after receiving a Canadian flag and stuffed animal. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
The Burmese refugee family of Karen ethnicity had spent 20 years living at Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. The children aged four to 16 were all born inside the camp.
The camp was established in 1984 after thousands of villages were burned to the ground during an armed conflict and ethnic persecution by the Burmese government.
"The children will have no experience outside of a jungle camp. Never seen much in terms of vehicles, airplanes, concrete buildings, glass towers, people," said Doering.
The children hold a banner that reads 'Welcome to Canada' in the refugee family's language (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
Finally, the refugee family walked through the gates and soon enough the nerves from both sides were replaced with hello's and introductions.
The volunteers introduced themselves through an interpreter and handed Canadian flags and stuffed animals to the children.
Speaking through interpreter Hserchri Trawgaye — who is also from Burma and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand — the mother of the young children said they are very happy to be in Canada.
When asked what it was like to fly on an airplane, she described it as being in a house that is flying.
What to do in Qualicum Beach?
The refugee family will spend the night in Vancouver before taking a ferry over to Qualicum Beach, a town located on Vancouver Island with a population of almost 9,000 people.
"I think they will feel at home there," said Doering.
Qualicum Beach is a smaller community that is not often a go-to place for refugees and it also the oldest population of any community in Canada.
"Definitely they're coming to a community that is known for its retirement scene," she said.
Hserchri Trawgaye lives in Vancouver but is originally from Burma and also lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. She will follow the family to Qualicum Beach to help them settle in. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
But Doering hopes the green scenery of the town will make the family feel at home.
After the family has settled in, the focus will be on teaching them English and helping them adjust to life in Canada, which may include anything from teaching them how to use a stove or go grocery shopping.
"I hope they just try and be a family. Walk around, feel a sense that there is no barbed wires. You can walk the streets, you're safe," said volunteer Anna Grieve.
The children will be attending school come September and the parents will be given an opportunity to work at a Thai restaurant or work on a farm, as they have in the past.
It all started with a house
The entire journey began in January, when the town of Qualicum Beach put out a request for ideas on what to do with a former RCMP station that was sitting empty.
Chris Ferris and her husband came up with the idea to use the house for a refugee family. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
"We were out walking by the house and thought, maybe the town would be interested in giving that house to refugees," said Chris Ferris, who came up with the idea with her husband one night.
After a town meeting was held the plan was approved and the sponsorship process began.
Volunteers and residents of Qualicum Beach get the house ready for the refugees to move into once they arrive. (Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group/Facebook)
But the volunteer group was expecting a Syrian refugee family, not a family from Burma, also known as Myanmar.
"I think that was everyone's expectation because that's what was in the news and you didn't hear about other families," said Doering, adding that the group wasn't really concerned about where the family would be from.
The refugee family will be able to live at the house rent free for 18 months, with the volunteer group covering the cost of utilities.