It’s a Sunday morning in May and I’m a little nervous. Claudia and I have invited quite a few people to a refugee awareness event at our house for this afternoon. But it is Mother’s Day and a lot of people have already indicated that they can’t make it.
I’m hoping we won’t be wasting the time of our 3 invited speakers, each of whom has lots of experience in this area and who will be donating their Sunday afternoon in order to meet with us.
As it turns out, we end up with a pretty full house with over 30 people showing up. It seems that the refugee issue is resonating with people.
The first speaker, Yosief Araya, works for the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP). The program is funded by the federal government and is designed to support Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs). Yosief explained to us the different ways in which private citizens can sponsor refugees. One option is to nominate people for the Canadian government to recognize as refugees (so-called “named” refugees). The process takes between 24 – 48 months and sponsors receive no financial support from the government.
The other option, which seems a better fit for us, is to sponsor refugees through the “Blended Visa Office-Referred Program”. These are people who have already been identified by the UNHCR as refugees, have been accepted by Canada and are “ready to travel“. This latter category requires very little paperwork on the part of the sponsoring group and the refugees can arrive into Canada within 1 to 4 months. Under this program, at least five people have to form a constituent group and have to pay for more than half of the sponsored refugee’s costs in the first year. Yosief told us that Canada plans to bring in 800 to 1000 refugees under the blended refugee settlement program in 2015.
We learned that the main focus of Canada's blended VOR program in 2015 is on the following populations: Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Congolese, Burundians, Burmese, Bhuanese and Colombians.
Yosief is followed by Khwaka Kukuboo of the United Church of Canada. Faith communities have historically been a leader in forming groups to sponsor and settle refugees and the United Church has been one of the biggest players in Canada. Khwaka shared a document with profiles of refugees currently available for sponsorship with us. The vast majority are from Eritrea, followed by Burmese. Surprisingly, there are no Syrians on the list.
Our final speaker was Larry Peloso, representing the Metropolitan Community Church, which has been a leader in advocating for LGBT refugee issues and sponsoring and settling refugees who are being persecuted for their sexual orientation.
I think many people in the audience found it surprising that the Canadian policy for most refugees is that they must be sponsored and settled by private citizens in order for them to be allowed to come to Canada. While European governments will pay for and arrange the settlement of refugees, it is private citizens who must undertake both the cost and the time to settle many of the refugees coming to Canada.
There was also a discussion about how big a problem the current refugee situation is. Globally, there are an estimated 60 million people who have been displaced due to war and persecution. 13 million have been forced to flee their countries.
We talked about how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, to become paralyzed when confronted by the need. But then someone pointed out that while our sponsorship of a single refugee family would only represent a drop in the bucket, really a drop in the ocean , that in fact for that one family, for each of the individuals within that family, it is a pretty transformative ‘drop’. That in fact that family will be moving from a refugee camp where they are living in limbo, with no clear hope for the future, to Toronto where whole new avenues of possibility and opportunity will open up for each one of the family members.
Ending our meeting with this discussion regarding sponsoring a refugee family, providing a hopeful future where it doesn’t exist right now, and thinking specifically about what it must be like for the parents themselves to see their children in need, it suddenly seemed appropriate that we were holding this event on Mother’s Day, in a safe place, on a sunny afternoon.