This week I went to a refugee support meeting in a church hall. There were over 20 people at the meeting, including the vicar of the church and a few observers like Nicola V. and me––a few Quakers, an elderly gentleman from a seniors' care home, and a Muslim gentleman from the Cordova Centre in Ottawa––all of us wondering what it would entail to create our own refugee sponsorship groups. A lady at the meeting representing the Coalition In Ottawa for Refugees could supply a list of Syrian families who want to come to Canada to escape from the war.
The meeting began with a summary of what would be required (as detailed in today's Globe and Mail) to sponsor one of these families.
- Human resources––potential sponsors need to be associated with a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) approved by the Canadian government, the Refugee Working Group of the Anglican Diocese in Ottawa, for example, who will guarantee the support of a refugee family. People who want to be involved need to make a big commitment, because the family “will become part of their lives” both before and after their arrival in Ottawa.
- Financial resources––about $28000 must be raised to support a family of four.
- Technical resources and experienced help––there have to be two levels of application: (1) to the SAH, (2) to Immigration Canada. The paperwork invariably takes more than a month to complete and, at present, it takes a good 8 months of waiting “before anything happens.”
A Syrian-Canadian gentleman at the meeting told us harrowing stories of his relatives from Aleppo, some of whom had been killed or badly injured in the war. He mentioned several brothers and cousins and their wives and children so that I got confused as to who was who; anyhow, the family this church wishes to sponsor are his relations and he is willing to put them up at his house if they can be brought to Canada. There are two children, boys of Grade 3 and Grade 1 school age. Their mother is an experienced hairdresser who would have no difficulty finding work in Canada. The father is (was) a businessman. Typically, Syrians do not keep their savings in investments or savings accounts but in a safe; they also invest in property, or a business venture. Because of the war, this man has therefore lost a fortune and has, with his family, been living with relatives in Lebanon. On the Canadian application form, like all Permanent Residence applicants, they have to recount their story with no gaps in the narrative. Everyone applying has to have a valid Syrian passport.
Copies of relevant pages from the Refugee Sponsorship Handbook (2014) were handed out as well as other informative documents. Sometimes the sponsorship money is required up front, sometimes not. An international organisation (UNHCR, I assume) arranges the refugees’ flights to Canada. They are given an interest free loan for their airfares which must eventually be paid back to the Canadian government. It is actually an advantage for them to be in debt when they come to Canada; this credit rating will help with their purchase of a car, etc. On arrival the refugees must have immediate access to clothing, food, transport, access to healthcare, schools, etc. Sponsorship teams assist with all these things, but because refugees arrive in Ontario as Permanent Residents, they do get immediate OHIP protection, regardless of whether or not they have registered with OHIP yet––claims can be retrospective. Finding affordable accommodation for the family is the greatest challenge. The lease of rented accommodation must be signed ahead of their arrival and their rent payments guaranteed, or they can stay in “emergency accommodation” (someone’s house) for a few weeks first. Some financial help from the government is available in the form of allowances for clothing, food staples and basic household furniture and kitchen / cleaning equipment. But in addition, until they find paid employment, each member of the family will probably need about $60 a week in “start-up money” from their sponsors.
It is a good idea to set up a donations website for a family being sponsored, so that outsiders can contribute. When fundraising, it helps to be specific about how the money will be used (e.g. for children’s winter clothing) and, once the family is in town, their presence at a fundraiser helps enormously.
The government and the Diocese (or other SAH) requires the names of those who will help the sponsored family in specific ways: who will meet them at the airport, who will be their emergency contact at night, etc. These details have to be written on the application forms because our commitment and follow-through must be guaranteed. If we offer the family “emergency accommodation” in our homes, it is important to ensure that every member of our household understands and accepts a situation which can become challenging at times.
Concurrently with this meeting I went to, representatives of the local SAHs were meeting with the Mayor of Ottawa, who is being admirably sympathetic, hoping to set up a new kind of sponsorship project. The application process need changing, because the volume of requests is likely to be much greater in the near future. Let's hope the immigration rules change soon; the call for change is growing day by day and not just from people like me, but from prestigious Canadians such as General Rick Hillier, Former Chief of the Defence Staff for Canadian Forces, as well.