By Anne Woolger
As someone who has helped with the hands-on resettlement of close to 4,000 refugees in Canada in the past 28 years, in many ways, I am thrilled by the recent wave of enthusiasm, interest and compassion shown by Canadians from coast to coast in response to the plight of Syrian refugees.
Yet, I must confess that at another level, I have had mixed feelings. Dare I use words like hurt or even jealousy? Perhaps I feel a bit like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son.
You see, I serve another group of refugees who are not featured in the news, who are quietly arriving and seeking asylum at our borders almost every day. But no one is running out to greet them or cooking fattened calves to welcome them. This group of refugees are called “refugee claimants.”
Refugee claimants are those in need of protection, but who for various legitimate reasons, are unable to gain access to Canadian visa offices abroad. They are forced to ask for asylum upon arrival in Canada.
They are the ones about whom much of the Canadian public knows very little, whose plight is often misunderstood and who are sometimes the scapegoats of political rhetoric. Historically they have made up the largest number of refugees arriving in Canada (sometimes as many as 25,000 annually).
In my opinion, many of them are the most vulnerable refugees arriving in Canada each year, yet they have no one to welcome or assist them.
I could fill this page with hundreds of stories of refugee claimants I know, including unaccompanied minor teens, who had been literally dumped on the streets of Toronto by “agents” with little more than the clothes on their back and left to fend for themselves.
I could tell the story of a sobbing pregnant mother and small son from Sudan found wondering the halls of Pearson Airport in the middle of the night by sympathetic RCMP officers who discovered she had asked for asylum hours earlier, but did not know where to turn for help upon release from border agents. Or of the young woman from Congo who literally spent her first night sleeping on the street curled up in front of a shop in downtown Toronto in November, because she did not know enough English to explain her plight to passersby (after being abandoned on the street by an agent).
My eyes were originally opened to the plight of refugee claimants in the late 1980s when I began work at a city-run shelter that received both government sponsored and also refugee claimants.
I discovered that these two refugee groups often came from the same countries and had the same experiences of trauma and torture, but the one group who were government sponsored were “lucky” enough to be brought here by the government. They are granted permanent secure status and core support upon arrival, while the other group (refugee claimants) while equally in need of protection, had no one to welcome or assist them, and they are anxious about whether or not they will be accepted to stay permanently.
Thankfully, Canada has signed the Geneva Refugee convention which, by law, entitles claimants to remain in the country until they have a hearing before an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member (judge), and if deemed to be truly in need of asylum, they are granted protection and allowed to remain in Canada as recognized refugees.
They are also eligible to receive basic social assistance (welfare) while they go through the asylum application process. However, sadly, there is no system in place that offers any provision of reception (housing) and support for these refugee claimants upon their arrival and initial days in Canada.
Even though many are very vulnerable and at risk, they are simply numbered among the homeless upon arrival. For refugees who don’t know anyone in Canada, some spend their first night on a bench at the airport, sleep on the street or are re-traumatized at very rough homeless shelters that are not geared toward the needs of refugee claimants.
This sad scene, to the surprise of many Canadians, continues to repeat itself almost daily in our country.
A few small shelters including ours, (Matthew House, Toronto) have been established over the years to fill this gap in service and in essence serve as “sponsors by default.”
As Christians we take God’s call to welcome the stranger and love the alien to heart. Refugee claimant shelters welcome and assist these desperate people as best we can, but the need is greater than the current supply and most run on very limited budgets.
In the last few months alone our shelter has received six unaccompanied teenagers (girls and boys from Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan – the second, third and fourth largest refugee-producing countries in the world, next to Syria).
Several arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, were simply dumped on the streets of Toronto by agents (smugglers) and left to fend for themselves.
It is not a warm welcome to a “Christian” country. If only they could be embraced by caring Canadian families.
These are the refugees I serve who are behind the spotlight yet are, in my opinion, equally (if not more) vulnerable and deserving of our support and attention as the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.
I believe that refugee claimants would be thrilled to sample even a small taste of the “banquet food” that is being prepared for the others arriving in our land.
While I rejoice about the enthusiasm being shown for our Syrian brothers and sisters, I can’t help but feel a bit like the older brother in the prodigal son story.
I wish to remind Canadians that there are many other very needy refugees arriving daily in Canada who have no one waiting to welcome them and who would benefit immensely from support.
There is no shortage of refugee claimants needing “unofficial sponsors” willing to simply be their friend. In short, you can become a “sponsor” by default for those refugee claimants arriving here who have no one to watch out for them or welcome them.
Groups can do the same things as a sponsor with a refugee claimant, but with no financial responsibility. You can help with practical needs such as finding an apartment and furnishing it, providing orientation to the neighbourhood, help with shopping and friendship support.
How can you find a refugee claimant?
Most are located in our major cities – but not all. Go online and google a refugee claimant shelter near you, or go to the Canadian Council for Refugees website, or look up lists of agencies serving refugees in Canada. Many refugee shelters are faith-based and would be extremely grateful for additional support of any kind.
In short, you can make a world of difference in the life of those refugees behind the spotlight. Thank you!
Anne Woolger is founding director of Matthew House, a group of three welcome houses for refugee claimants in Toronto. This summer the Refugee Highway Partnership North America will host a refugee ministry consultation this summer in Toronto.