Tuesday, 1 January 2019

New Year's Visit from Minister Hussen

It was a New Year’s Day that our Eritrean newcomer family and we, their sponsors, will not soon forget. January 1, 2019 began with a visit of very special guests: Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and Mohamad Fakih, Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Minister Hussen first reached out to us after seeing the adorable video of the two eldest children of the family enjoying their first snowfall in Canada that our group member Rebecca had posted on social media in November. The video went completely viral within hours, was picked up by media around the world and even retweeted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Minister Hussen (right) and Mohamad Fakih interact with the family
The Minister’s visit to the family’s new apartment coincided with the birthdays of mum Jamila and her two eldest children, who turned eight and six. January 1 is a birthday they share with many newcomers to Canada who used to be refugees. Many people who flee their homes and don’t have birth certificates get assigned this date of birth when they register as refugees, and carry it over when they fill out forms in their new home country.

Minister Hussen not only brought lots of gifts for the family and helped us sing Happy Birthday, he also discussed the benefits of Canada’s private sponsorship model.  Together with the UNHCR and other partners, the government launched the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative two years ago and has successfully promoted the community-based sponsorship model to a number of countries around the world, such as the UK, Germany and New Zealand. The minister said that we need to normalize the support for refugees. He urged all Canadians to amplify positive stories about immigrants and the enormous benefits Canada is reaping because of the contributions of the many newcomers who are coming here each year.

A case in point were our two visitors. Minister Hussen arrived in Canada as a teenage refugee from Somalia. Mohamad Fakih founded Paramount Fine Foods, a chain that now has 80 restaurants around North America and has more than 150 Syrian refugees among its employees, only a few years after arriving almost penniless from Lebanon. He is now partnering with the UNHCR and is talking to other businesses in Canada about hiring and sponsoring refugees.

It seems hard to believe that less than two months ago, Jamila and her four small children were living in a refugee camp in Sudan, unsure about their future. She did not know that a sponsorship group was waiting for her at the airport in Toronto and expected in fact to be settled in yet another refugee camp (the information sharing with privately sponsored refugees prior to their arrival is something that definitely needs to improve!). Today, the family experienced the kind-heartedness and openness not just of ordinary Canadian citizens but even a high-level government
official. It is hard to think of a better way to start a new year, and indeed, a new life.

By Claudia Blume

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Please help us bring an Eritrean family of five to Canada

We need your help! The Ripple Refugee group is sponsoring a young mother and her four children, all under 8 years old. The family was forced to flee their home in Eritrea and is currently residing under precarious circumstances in neighboring Sudan. Eritrea is recognized as having one of the most repressive regimes in the world. 

The UNHCR and the Canadian Government have reviewed and approved the family’s application for refugee status and they could arrive in Toronto before this coming Christmas. Our group has chosen to support this young mum and her small children because they are very vulnerable and because we think we can make a huge impact on their lives.

But we need to raise $25,000 to make this happen. Any donations over and above this amount will be used for refugee sponsorships our group will undertake in 2019.

Tax-receipted donations can be made on-line via the Rosedale United Church’s (our sponsorship agreement holder) donation page at Canada Helps (please click here). Please be sure to indicate in the box marked “Include a message for this charity” that the donation is for: RUC-25 Ripple Refugee Project.

Eritreans seeking safe passage to Sudan (credit: UNHCR)
Because of the generous support of our donors we have been able to sponsor and settle two Syrian families and one individual over the last three years, totalling twelve people. You can read about their incredible stories and the journey that our group of concerned citizens from Toronto has been on in our blog.

For more information about donating to our group, please click here

Thursday, 23 August 2018


I travel a lot for work. When the flight home is over, and after the final exhaustion of body and soul by customs lines and luggage carousels, I used to race through the automatic doors to the international arrivals hall and grab a cab or Uber for the last twenty-one kilometres of the trip.

But for the past two years, though still always heart-hungry to get home quickly and see my family, I now stop and look around when I’m through those doors and free to leave.

I look for signs. Literally. “Welcome xxx Family to Canada!” they say, and, usually "مرحبا بكم في كندا." Sometimes "bienvenue au Canada”. If you know the acronyms and lingo, no small talk with the signs’ bearers is needed. GAR, JAS, or BVOR*? Have you already spoken with the family? How large is it? What country are they from? Do they speak English? How do they feel about coming to Canada? Do you know any of what they’ve been through? Best wishes for you all.

On June 6, I was there, in the international arrivals hall, with a sign. For the third time. I’d joined my friend Sawsan Awad and her family to greet her brother, Mahmoud, the latest human being sponsored by  Ripple and it was at this exact spot in Terminal 1, in December 2015, where we had first met Sawsan, her husband Mohamad, and the rest of the Abdallah family in person.

Family reunification is important for the wellbeing of newcomers, and was something that Sawsan had said she wanted and needed - to restore links with some of her family after being separated by war. And so we did not hesitate to sponsor her youngest brother, who was still stuck in Lebanon.

It can take four hours for newcomers to walk through those automatic doors, but I always want to be there, just on the other side, even before the plane lands and for the whole time it takes them to get processed. With my sign, red and white carnations, and Canadian flag. I will not miss the moment the arrivals doors open and they come through, a moment that represents joy, journey, meaning, grace, relief, grief, sadness, happiness, weariness, survival, openness, philanthropy, resistance, resilience, family, citizenry, past, present, and future. I’m unapologetic about this. Such human moments generate more humanity. It’s a ripple effect.

Two months of settling into his new life in Toronto, Mahmoud told me, “Arriving in Canada is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because I speak English, I’ve faced nothing like the challenges faced by many newcomers. But settling in a new community takes effort. I’m working hard and trying to get involved in the community. I still miss my family and friends back in Syria and Lebanon. l had no choice but to leave. After so many years, I finally reunited with my sister and her family. She has three beautiful daughters, and the two older ones, Aya and Reemas, are very happy and excited to have another uncle around. My sister Sawsan was overwhelmed with joy, and burst into tears when she was at the airport to pick me up.”

In a couple of weeks I’ll be returning from another business trip and walking through that spot where we first met Sawsan and her family, then Amr, Rasha, and baby Kareem, the second Syrian family our group had sponsored, and now, Mahmoud. And I’ll look for more signs, think with gratitude of those who’ve arrived, and the many more we must bring through those automatic doors at arrivals.

*Government Assisted Refugees, Joint Assistance Sponsorship, Blended Visa Office-Referred

By Rebecca Davies

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Keeping a balance between the now and my roots

Amr Al-Farham, his wife Rasha and their son Kareem arrived in Toronto in December 2016. They are the second Syrian family our group had sponsored to come to Canada. We asked Amr to give our supporters an update about how the family has settled in.  

I promised, with pleasure, that I would write a post a year after our arrival and now it’s been almost 19 months. My wife and I were, and still are, overwhelmed with life, and this is another sign of becoming Torontonians. I think that one of the most important signs of becoming a Torontonian is that what you think you can do is way less compared to what you can actually do. 

When I knew that moving to Canada is happening, my child had just gotten out of the incubator after two months of intensive care. He had been born prematurely. To celebrate both events, we threw a big party at our flat in the city of Gaziantep, which we call Aintab, in the south of Turkey. During the party, my Syrian friend who had been to Canada before gave me what sounded like a very precious advice: “Amr, you won’t believe me if I told you that the country is extremely cold. Please wrap-up very well even under your pants as many people lose their genitals due to the extreme cold. If you’re not well prepared, your genitals will fall off and you will lose them forever.” 

My friend’s advice was untrue but the cold he told me about was something I never experienced in my life. I know now where the famous Game of Thrones’ phrase “Winter is coming” comes from, and how weather here controls not only the way people dress “the crows on the wall” but also how people act, react, live, behave and even smile.

Upon arrival, most people in Toronto have been very welcoming. I later figured out that the reason was that we were the hot topic in the news. We were the topic of debate and, to a much lesser degree, a target of insult for some conservatives. Unlike many Syrian friends in the diaspora who were hiding their identity in the public fearing becoming a target of hate, discrimination or just simply getting bombarded with tons of political and religious questions, I decided to say out loud that I had recently arrived as a Syrian refugee and was open to all responses. In downtown Toronto, the responses were usually warm and welcoming.

However, I would receive the strangest comments and questions that one would not expect. Here are some examples from different people during the past 18 months:
-   "You’re Syrian! Oh wow, that’s cool! I am happy to meet one in person, are you really as traumatized as they say in the news?"
-   "Oh, welcome to Canada buddy! May I ask a question; did you really cross the sea and walk across Europe in order to make it here?"
-   "We are glad you are here and safe; do you need toasters? We have an extra one?"

In our culture we use different bread (what people call pita here is actually Syrian bread), so toasters are not essential in our diet. But my answer to the last question was: “Thank you very much, what we really need here is a job.”

Speaking English and having university degrees helped us jump many steps forward. Ripple Refugee group understood this from the very first time they met us. Instead of registering us in a language school or showing us how to take a first TTC ride, they put huge efforts into networking and helping us write our resumes and cover letters in an attractive way for a Canadian employer. I want to mention the invaluable one-on-one meetings with group member Keith, who is a HR specialist.
With all the support we received, and by being proactive, flexible and positive, by talking to everyone and sending our resumes everywhere, my wife started working in a media company in February. She has since been promoted and given a permanent contract, while I was able to get a limited contract with Doctors Without Borders as a project manager. 

Being in an advantaged position, I volunteered my language skills and translated for Syrian newcomer families who did not speak any English, which connected me with many families who were not as advantaged as we were back home. They told me how determined they were to build a new life for themselves and for their loved ones. They were eager to study, or just jump at any job opportunity and start providing for their families despite all the challenges. I was also introduced to different private sponsorship groups who were from different age groups and different professions. Some were faith based while other were just neighborhood groups, work colleagues or even dog walkers. But what they all shared is that they were amazing people who were willing to provide as much support and care as possible.

Fleeing a war-torn country is not something that is easy to overcome. We still have our parents in relatively safer cities but with mortars occasionally falling around and kidnappings. They live under a brutal, oppressive and corrupt regime in a permanent failed economy and prevailing misery in the air. We have friends and family who are scattered around the world, with similar education qualifications. Some have been successful while others are still struggling. We talk to them on the phone and many reveal how desperate and helpless they are. I believe that if my friends in Germany, Spain, France or even Turkey and Egypt were privately sponsored and provided with similar support opportunities as happened to me and my wife, they would have been doing much better now and their host countries would have been benefiting from their skills.

In my mindset now, I am not a refugee anymore. I am a newcomer with skills, a Torontonian who follows up with elections, local news and checks the TTC updates every weekend. I am writing this article while my son is running around me, mumbling short sentences of mixed English and Syrian Arabic words. I have a daily struggle of how to keep a balance between the now and the roots, the future and the past, my current Canadian dream of a diverse, fair and open society and my Syrian dream of a stable democratic and pluralist country.  

By Amr Al-Faham

Monday, 4 June 2018

How can the citizen sponsorship model be improved?

On May 5, Canada4Refugees, in partnership with Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, held a one-day workshop with members of sponsorship groups, settlement agencies and refugees to discuss the challenges of the current citizen sponsorship model, and ways to improve the system. 

Three members of the Ripple sponsorship group are founding members of Canada4Refugees, an organization that aims to both promote and support the citizen sponsorship model for refugee resettlement through advocacy, education and awareness.

Several experts shared their insights into private sponsorship and overall refugee and migration issues in Canada, including Senator Radna Omidvar, an expert on refugee and immigration issues; Mario Calla, the executive director of COSTI settlement agency; Samantha Jackson of Lifeline Syria; Wendy Cukier, head of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, who has written extensively about migration issues. Most stressed the importance of the citizen sponsorship model that started in the 1970s, when private citizens sponsored more than 60,000 so-called ‘boat people’ - instead of the 4000 the government had anticipated. The response to the Syrian crisis was equally enthusiastic, but interest in private sponsorship has declined noticeably in Canada after its 2015/2016 peak.

The participants identified a number of challenges for citizen sponsors. They include finding sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) as well as a lack of oversight from SAHs; lack of access to settlement training and limited funds; the long processing time for applications; weak links between sponsors and settlement agencies; a lack of communication between sponsorship groups and the Department of Immigration as well as limited availability of resources for refugees in rural and northern communities. Refugees’ access to work and language training was also noted as a concern. Another issue that was lamented is that there is no clear information about how many private sponsorship groups there are in Canada, and the difficulty to connect with them.

In a brainstorming and discussion session, a number of suggestions were made on how to improve the system.

·       Create an organization – possibly comprised of representatives of Canada4Refugees and the Refugee Sponsorship Training Programme – to work with the SAH Council to make more information and resources available to private sponsorship groups
·       Create a universal, non-faith based SAH that sponsors could go to for information and support. It should probably start in Toronto but could be replicated around the country if successful.
·       Create a better handbook outlining pre- and post-arrival obligations and improve access to resources and services for sponsorship groups
·       Comprehensive training and capacity building for front-line service providers as well as for sponsors, catering to diverse learning styles
·       Refugee voices need to amplified in conversations about sponsorship and refugee issues in general
·       More direct and clear information is needed on family reunification, which is important for mental health of refugees. IRCC may need to expand its definition of family, going beyond the Western notion of a nuclear family
·       Sponsors should be allowed to sponsor asylum seekers, e.g. those who have come across the border from the US.
·       Advocacy is needed to motivate the public to continue to sponsor refugees/have empathy for refugees. Telling stories, appealing to emotions can help.

At the end of the workshop, participants came up with suggestions for concrete actions that could be taken. They were ranked by the participants. Here are the top seven:

1.       Fund additional employees at ICRCC to review the backlog of applications, with a view of processing 50,000 refugee applications each year for the next five years.
2.       Call on the government to waive limits and quotas on the number of refugees for private and citizen sponsorships each year.
3.       Mobilize citizens who are not on-board – if we don’t change their perceptions, there will be no political change
4.       Invite fifty asylum seekers to a BBQ at Allen Gardens
5.       Create better communication channels to share information and ideas, and to enhance collaboration
6.       Create a secular SAH, similar to Lifeline Syria, that is transparent, open to working with all sponsorship groups, able to issue tax receipts and has staff that answers questions and makes referrals to other organizations
7.       Create a list of all private sponsors in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to build a network

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Why we decided to focus more on BVOR refugees rather than named-case sponsorship

For Private Sponsorship groups like ours, which want to undertake sponsorships on an on-going basis, there are number of benefits of working through the Blended Visa Office Referral (BVOR) program as compared to the Named-Case stream.

Named-Cases are those where an application is prepared here in Canada and submitted to the Canadian Immigration Department (IRCC) for review and, hopefully, approval. The vast majority of Syrian refugees who were privately sponsored over the last two years came to Canada through the Named-Case program. Their applications were prepared by family or community members or by groups such as Lifeline Syria before being submitted to the IRCC for consideration. 

The BVOR program, on the other hand, contains refugees whose files have already been reviewed and approved by the IRCC.  A list containing brief biographical profiles of the approved BVOR refugees is periodically circulated by the RefugeeSponsorship and Training Program and Group of 5 or private sponsorships groups, working with their Sponsorship Agreement Holders, can choose from this list who they want to sponsor.  

When comparing the two refugee programs, Private Sponsorship groups may find that there are a number of benefits of opting to sponsor refugees from the BVOR stream. These benefits include:

  • Lower fundraising requirements:  Under the BVOR program the government pays up to 40% of the associated costs for the first year of resettlement here in Canada. Named-Cases require private sponsors to pay for 100% of the settlement costs.
  • Faster and more predictable arrival times:  Since refugees under the BVOR stream are pre-approved by the government and are ‘ready to travel’, they will normally arrive within 12 weeks of the private group requesting the sponsorship [Note – there was a breakdown in the BVOR program in 2016/2017 which led to inordinate delays, substitutions and outright cancellations but this was an exception to the program’s normal operating process]. 
Named-Cases typically take a minimum of 18 months but possibly as long as 36 - 48 months from submission of the application to their arrival into Canada, assuming the application is approved.  
  • Reduced Paperwork: Private groups need to fill in minimal paperwork to sponsor BVOR refugees whereas Named-Cases involve extensive paperwork and backup documentation to support the application. 
  •  BVOR cases are pre-approved and arms-length, eliminating the possibility of emotional turmoil that can arise in stalled or rejected Named-Case applications: With Named-Cases, delays or rejections can be heart-wrenching for both the sponsors and the refugees themselves. In some cases, the sponsors are communicating directly with the Named-Case applicants trying to explain why the application is delayed or possibly helping out financially until it is approved. [Note – the process errors in some of the BVOR files mentioned above, in 2016/2017, in some cases also lead to similar issues, but that is not how the program normally functions].
  • Sponsor groups can choose who to sponsor based on their own priorities: Our group is interested in sponsoring the most vulnerable of refugees – those with medical issues, women at risk, larger families, single parent families etc.   In addition to these criteria, we are now also interested in sponsoring Rohingya refugees. The circulated BVOR lists provide profile descriptions, including country of origin, which allow groups to select who they want to sponsor based on their own pre-determined priorities
  • BVOR sponsorships do not use up scarce Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) quotas: Each year the IRCC sets a limited quota for the number of sponsorships that a particular SAH, such as the United Church, can undertake.   Since BVOR sponsorships do not count against these scarce quotas they are more appealing to SAH’s and they can be initiated even when the SAH has reached its annual quota limit.

I want to emphasize that both the Named-Case and the BVOR programs are important and valuable in terms of Canada’s overall refugee efforts and the humanitarian values that they espouse.  The Named-Case stream enables community groups, or the newcomers themselves, to sponsor relatives or other key members of the newcomers’ original community, and this has been shown to be extremely important to the emotional well-being of the newcomers and in helping to ensure their successful long-term resettlement here in Canada.  From a purely humanitarian point of view, family reunification is obviously something we should strive for, rather than having families separated by geography and possibly leaving close family members overseas, still in harms way.   

Furthermore, in what has become known as the “Echo” effect, many Private Groups developed a strong attachment with their sponsored newcomers and are now undertaking follow-on Named-Case applications to help these newcomers bring in extended family members as well.  Our group have decided that we will consider sponsoring adult children or the parents and grandparents of people we have sponsored but generally we are not looking at sponsoring relatives beyond that – but that is a decision that our group, like other groups, must make on a case by case basis.

Notwithstanding the “Echo” effect, for those groups that are considering sponsoring refugees on an on-going basis, one after another, they may find for the reasons mentioned above that the BVOR program is much easier to work with than the Named-Case stream.  Currently there is a shortage of Private sponsors putting their hand up for BVOR refugees which is a shame given the many benefits associated with this program.

Andrew FitzGerald
Chair, Ripple Refugee Project

This article was first published on the Canada4Refugees blog

Sunday, 30 July 2017

A memorable meeting in Ethiopia

After the successful sponsorship of two Syrian families over the past year and a half, Ripple has been eagerly looking forward to our next sponsorship opportunities. Khaled’s situation was brought to our attention by our Syrian group member Ammar. Khaled had fled violence in Syria and is now living temporarily in Ethiopia. Ripple enthusiastically agreed to support his application to come to Canada.

In April, we received an update on Khaled’s application which read as follows:

Good Day,

Please be advised that this application is still in progress and is in queue for an Interview.

Unfortunately the interview dates have not been determined yet, once they are established the applicant will be notified accordingly.


Immigration and Visa Section | Service Immigration-Visas
Canadian High Commission | Haut Commissariat du Canada
Government of Canada | Gouvernement du Canada

The following month I was in Ethiopia, as part of the Toronto Addis Ababa Academic Collaboration in emergency medicine.

While there, I sent this simple text message:
“Hello Khaled, I’m part of your Canadian sponsorship group. I’m in Addis this week, it would be great to meet. Are you free on Tuesday for coffee? –   Jennifer” 

Within minutes, Khaled messaged me and we arranged to meet.
On the patio of my hotel we ordered Fanta and coffee and Khaled told me his story. He told me of the violence his family has experienced, showed me photos of war-decimated buildings where friends and family members once lived. He talked about struggling to support himself after leaving Syria, first fleeing to Sudan and then on to Ethiopia. 

With great difficulty, he’s found work in his area of expertise, travel and tourism, but his situation in Ethiopia is precarious. There’s no guarantee day to day of how long he will be able to continue to work and live there. Khaled's wife and daughter are still in Syria, eagerly awaiting the time when their family can be reunited

Khaled continues to await a date for his interview and the opportunity to finally move from a temporary existence to being able to build a new home in Canada.

We ended our visit with the shared hope that the next time we see each other will be in Pearson Airport as Khaled arrives in Toronto to start his new life.

By Dr. Jennifer Bryan