by Debra Fieguth
Since that day in early September when the image of a tiny boy’s body washed up on a Turkish shore began circulating in the media, thousands of compassionate Canadians have been wondering what they can do to rescue families fleeing conflict.
Refugee sponsorship is a serious undertaking with many challenges and demands, but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have.
Here are some points to consider for church groups thinking about sponsorship.
First, educate yourself about the crisis. The situation in Syria is complex and frightening. It has been going on for almost five years, since the Arab Spring of 2011, and has been compounded by the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are now some 4 million Syrians outside their own country, and another 8 million who are internally displaced. They are both Christians and Muslims. Half of them are children.
You can sponsor Syrians who have fled to Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey, but you cannot currently sponsor them from European countries, which are considered “safe third countries.” Nor can you sponsor people directly from Syria. Here’s what you can do.
Find out if your denomination is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) with the Federal Government, which will make the process smoother because of the experienced leadership you are demonstrating you have.
For a list of denominations and other organizations affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada that are helping refugees, see www.theEFC.ca/MiddleEastRefugees.
Form a support group (called a Constituent Group), either within your church if it is a large one, or together with people from like-minded churches in your community.
Decide whether you want to sponsor a family already identified by the Federal Government, or one you have learned about through acquaintances in your community. A prescreened family (called Blended Visa Office Referred) will be able to travel to Canada sooner. And the reason it’s called “blended” is that the Federal Government provides six months of financial support through the Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) for the one-year commitment you will be making.
If you know someone with a family member or acquaintance overseas needing help, then you could do a full private sponsorship. In these cases the family would not have been interviewed at a visa office yet, so the process takes longer. The advantage for you is that it gives you a longer time to fundraise. (Donations to your church or denomination for refugee support are tax receiptable.) But be prepared to wait. Although Syrian refugees are arriving more quickly than many others now, I have been involved in cases where the wait was up to five years.
Determine how large a family you can handle. If you are just starting out, you might want to begin this work with a smaller family.
A lot of people worry about the money, but that is often one of the easier pieces of sponsorship (along with gathering clothing and furniture). People are moved – they want to help and so they give.
The real work begins once the family has landed. Your responsibilities range from welcoming them at the airport to getting them into English classes, registering the children in school, finding a doctor, taking them shopping, showing them the community, setting up an apartment for them, and just spending time with them, becoming friends.
Some families are easier than others. A year ago the small refugee committee I belong to decided we were ready to bring another family to Canada. We chose a young husband and wife, along with their three-year-old daughter, living in Kuala Lumpur. The parents were of two different persecuted minorities in Burma, met in Malaysia, and were screened by a Canadian visa office there.
We submitted our undertaking to sponsor in November, and the family arrived in the middle of December – just in time for Christmas. They spoke next to no English then, but today they are thriving. The little one loves junior kindergarten, the parents are becoming quite good at English, and are more independent each week. They are a joy to be with. (Not all families are as easy as this, and understandably so. They have fled war and persecution, have sometimes been tortured and have serious medical and psychological needs.)
Apart from the satisfaction of knowing you have helped save a family, the relationships and friendships you make can last a lifetime. I’m still very close to a Congolese widow who came with five children 11 years ago. I can’t imagine my life without them.
There are many more detailed resources available. Check the EFC website for several faith-based guides to sponsorship.
Debra Fieguth is a senior writer for Faith Today, and refugee co-ordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Ontario. This article appears in the Nov/Dec issue of Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine. Buy three subscriptions of Faith Today for the price of one, now until Christmas.