Polar bear swim helps refugees

Church-mosque alliance benefits from blustery beach day

Swimmers take a dip at Willows Beach to raise funds and awareness for Syrian refugee families.

Swimmers take a dip at Willows Beach to raise funds and awareness for Syrian refugee families.

A cool and blustery swim Saturday was “a lark” with important results for Carlton Monk.

Sixteen swimmers in Oak Bay raised well over $100,000, along with others taking a dip simultaneously in Quebec and elsewhere, to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. “It was wild but we went swimming anyway… with the logs flipping around like matchsticks,” Monk said. “It was really incredible.”

Monk, who lives just beyond the Oak Bay border, takes a daily dip at Willows Beach. “I go swimming every day in the ocean, I have this quack theory that it’s good for my health,” he said.

Monk was well known for doing a polar bear swim when he lived in Quebec. “Sometimes you had to really chop a hole in the ice and sometimes you didn’t,” he said with a chuckle.

Where he taught, they sponsored two refugee students a year, and he used the swim to raise funds for it. For him, like many, recent images of families devastated in Syria, and trying to leave, served as a wake-up call. “I don’t know why I hadn’t done anything before,” he said.

While not a member of the Oak Bay United Church, “a core group of real doers” inspired him to fundraise through a polar bear swim to aid the partnership of Oak Bay United, Masjid Al-Iman mosque and St. Aidan’s United Church to bring two or three refugee families to Victoria. (Donate online at oakbay-unitedchurch.ca.)

“Those are the people I’m going to lend my support to. They’re the ones that are going to have the hard job,” Monk said.

In a bid to get the word out, his wife made me a sandwich board that said “polar bear swim for refugees Dec. 5 10 a.m.”

He walked the streets of downtown Victoria and the Dallas walkway. He also promoted the swim during his daily Willows swims. People started asking to participate, so he gave them pledge forms.

Monk will never know exactly how much he raised, as people are simply inspired to donate straight to the cause. And those who swam alongside, each chose their own “constituent group,” a group of five or more working to bring a family to Canada.

“Ive been having fun … it’s a lark for us, for them it’s very serious,” he said.

“We go in for 10 minutes and get cold, then we go home to a warm house with our families and have something to eat. Refugees do not go home, or have something warm to eat … and they probably do not have their families with them, because most refugee families are broken up.”