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The reality of long-term refugee settlement — tips for sponsors
For the past decade, Coleen Scott has helped Karen refugees make a new home in Canada. The Karen are the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar and they’ve been part of the longest ongoing civil war in modern times.

Coleen Scott is the founder of KLEO (Karen Learning and Education Opportunities).
Scott spends five months of the year in northwestern Thailand. She volunteers in refugee camps and works with parents, teachers, and students in schools in remote Karen mountain villages. The rest of the year, she can be found working alongside the Karen families she has helped settle in Ottawa. She’s worked with dozens of families over the past decade.

Scott is the founder of the Ottawa-based organization KLEO (Karen Learning and Education Opportunities).

She has learned a great deal about what it takes to successfully support refugees as they adapt to their new country.

Here are Coleen Scott’s tips for anyone sponsoring – or thinking of sponsoring – a newcomer to Canada.

Be patient, it takes time

“If supporters and sponsors are expecting that they will be able to walk away from their families in a year or two, that [the families] will be working well within a new society — those are false expectations. That will not happen. Be prepared that this is a long term involvement. This does not happen quickly.”

There is an adjustment cycle when refugees arrive

The first stage is fear of the unknown. As refugees begin to familiarize themselves with their new surroundings, they realize they are in a secure environment and they no longer have to face the same dangers they once knew.

“After this, there’s the reality of what their life is going to be. And there’s a drop in their well-being and how they feel about their new life.

After that drop comes the slow climb back up to where they want to be, where they can be happy and content.”

Scott says the balance in this cycle is ever-changing.

Karen refugee teens
Eh Paw Lay Say Gay and Eh Taw Loe Htoo came to Canada as refugees when they were children. You can hear their stories in this documentary.
Don’t see them as refugees, see them as individual people

What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. “We have to be in tune, we have to listen, and we have to be a friend. And not a friend who is overwhelming and trying to make a person fit into what they think is right for that person, or what they think is right for living in Canada. It’s not the same for everyone.”

The needs of refugees are always changing

Sit, listen, and be flexible. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is to let people come to me. What’s important is to wait, to watch. You will see just by being with people and sitting with them what they’re confused about, what they will understand. But it takes patience to do that.” Don’t assume that Western approaches will work for refugees coming into Canada. Let the ideas for adaptation come from them. And remember that the needs of refugees may change over time.

Click Listen to hear Tina Pittaway’s documentary about two young Karen refugees and the founder of KLEO, and discover what they’ve learned about successful long-term settlement.