Students from Western’s Masters of Public Health (MPH) program are hoping to smooth the transition of Syrian refugees into Canadian society through a unique partnership in Huron County.
In partnership with the Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health, MPH students are studying the viability of transforming the former Bluewater Youth Centre, near Goderich, into temporary housing for Syrian refugees. Once that use phases out, the team would convert the facility into a national centre for the treatment and study of post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and dementia.
Closed almost four years ago, the decommissioned youth centre could accommodate about 200 people in temporary living space, said Gwen Devereaux, Gateway past president. She added it would be ideal for refugees to be able to come together as a community before moving on throughout Canada.
“A refugee process that would optimize integration into Canadian society has benefits for the whole country. Introduction to Canada in a rural setting gives an opportunity for re-population of those areas where populations are aging and declining,” said Devereaux, who pointed out many refugees come from rural communities and may wish to stay in Huron County. “A research opportunity exists in following these new citizens to hopefully demonstrate a constructed and systematic approach to Canadianization leads to better outcomes for individuals, families and society as a whole.”
An overlap of members between Gateway and the Goderich Economic Development Strategic Planning, already discussing repurposing the youth centre, led to the opportunity to work together. Gateway was already developing a partnership with professor Lloy Wylie and the MPH program at Western.
Phase One will take place over a three-year period, with the ability to transition up to 2,000 refugees.
Student Elyse Burt said she is excited to be part of the community engagement learning adventure, which was born out of an economic plan to attract more people to Huron County by creating jobs in the community.
“We’re getting our feet wet and getting those real-life skills,” said Burt, who is focusing on Phase Two of the project, pertaining to the addiction and treatment facility. “We’re going to keep trekking forward and break down some of the barriers. We want to give Gateway everything they need to move forward.”
Classmate Connor Cleary hopes refugee families could live in the centre for up to six months while they acclimate to their new lives in Canada. That, along with the second phase of the plans, could create new jobs for the area, which lost more than 200 positions when the centre closed in March 2012.
“There is a real opportunity for this to work. But the time is now,” Cleary said. “It’s nice to see rural areas getting this attention. It is bringing attention to the situation. This facility could be here 10-15 years down the road, and we can look back and say we had a part in that. There is a ton of work, but I don’t feel worried. In reality, getting it going can be a challenge, but there are so many more opportunities we need to focus our attention on.”
The site in rural Huron County, now owned by Infrastructure Ontario, is comprised of approximately 300 acres of lakefront property, with multiple buildings and ample land to situate portable housing. With an estimated $11-million price tag, there are no plans for any community partners to purchase the facility, said Devereaux, who, as a nurse, worked at the facility when it was initially a psychiatric hospital. She now works at Alexandra Marine & General Hospital in Goderich.
“Having the students doing the research is just remarkable. It’s a tremendous help,” Devereaux said. “As a group of volunteers, their knowledge base and research skills will give us tremendous support going forward.”
MPH student Brittany Van Dyk said her class will investigate not only sources of funding, but infrastructure redevelopment, refugee health issues and refugee transitioning. With their report to be ready by April, she said there is no better learning curve than being part of a true community project, with real-life opportunities.
“Whereas we usually work on a project, get a grade and never hear of it again, to be able to apply this, and get to see the work we’re doing turn into something, is a great experience,” said Van Dyk, who added her class will make its first trip to the facility Feb. 19.
“We’re also going to be meeting with refugee families and ask them what sort of supports they would have liked to have seen when they arrived, what would they have found most helpful. Our job is to be setting the stage on what the next steps are, what the barriers and gaps are. We are providing something that can be used.”
Devereaux understands there are high hurdles to get over for the project to be a success. But she remains confident it’s attainable with the students’ help.
“We feel it’s an amazing project; the response from the community has been great. We’re not thinking for one minute there won’t be many, many challenges,” she said. “We’re pretty realistic knowing these things don’t happen overnight – with government constraints, and all. But it always tugs at our hearts when we hear another Syrian refugee story – it’s heartbreaking. So, if we can do anything to alleviate their pain, it would be wonderful.”