New Canadians incoming

By Liz McArthur, December 2015

Victoria prepares to help Syrian refugees make a new home.

As if there were a link between refugees and terrorists, fears have been expressed by some about the new Canadian government’s commitment to soon welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees. Yet there is no evidence for such a link. According to experts like Ottawa University law professor Errol Mendes, the refugees Canada will resettle will have been thoroughly pre-screened by UN officials—and then undergo extensive additional screening by Canadian officials.

While 25,000 refugees may seem like a lot, back in 2005 Canada accepted close to 36,000 refugees. As a result of rule-tightening by the Harper government in 2012, refugee claims dropped from 20,223 in 2012 to approximately 10,000 and 12,000 in the two subsequent years.

Many Canadians, including Victorians, are ready to welcome Syrian refugees to their communities. Chris Eve has been helping bring refugees to Canada since 1988. He challenges the idea of refugees as a security risk. “Security has always been part of the package. You can’t get in [to Canada] unless you can pass a security check, a police check and a medical check and that has always been so, but the public just buys into this security thing and I think that’s part of what’s feeding a climate of some fear out in the community now. Because some have been conditioned by the propaganda put out by the [Harper] government.”

Eve currently chairs a faith-based sponsorship group that is made up of congregation members from two downtown Victoria churches. He speaks highly of the people he has helped resettle. “Look at the contribution to our society they have made. I think we should be proud.”

There are different ways refugees can be privately sponsored to come to Canada. People can partner with a Sponsorship Agreement Holder—either Victoria’s Intercultural Association (ICA) or the Anglican Diocese of BC—to help with the application process. In other cases, groups of five or existing community organizations can independently apply to sponsor refugees without partnering with a Sponsorship Agreement Holder. The application process is different depending on the method of private sponsorship, but in all cases the sponsoring groups are financially responsible for supporting the refugees for one year. 

“Some people call me the matchmaker,” says Sabine Lehr in her office on a busy day at the ICA. Lehr is ICA’s immigrant services manager. Since the organization was named a Sponsorship Agreement Holder late last summer, she’s been swamped with inquiries from local citizens who want to help. “We have on the one hand groups contacting us, or individuals contacting us that would like to sponsor a refugee or a couple or a whole family. And on the other hand, often family members—or friends that know refugees—are coming to us saying ‘can you help?’” Lehr says the response has been overwhelming: “I’ve had phone calls practically from 8 in the morning until the evening and emails and people showing up. It’s been quite something.”

Besides helping coordinate groups and refugees, if something happens and a sponsor group partnered with the ICA cannot live up to its one-year financial obligation, it falls to the ICA to cover the financial support. That includes everything from rent and groceries to dental care and school supplies for children. The refugees are responsible for repaying the Canadian government for their plane tickets. 

Canada also takes in Government Assisted Refugees who are processed without the assistance of private citizens or groups (and who receive $1,349 per month for a family of four). Historically, these refugees have not been resettled in Victoria due to the greater concentration of services in the Metro Vancouver area. So it’s expected that BC’s portion of the 25,000 Syrian refugees—about 3000—will go to Vancouver. Lehr thinks that could change, however, given the large numbers about to be resettled. As well, there is currently no cap on the number of private sponsorships of Syrians and Iraquis, so ICA and the Anglican Diocese are allowed to facilitate the sponsorship of any number of those nations’ refugees.

For local sponsorship groups, fundraising and planning for the arrival of a newcomer is the first phase in the process of welcoming refugees to Victoria. Once the newcomer arrives, Lehr says, “That’s when the real work starts.”

It’s not just financial support. The sponsorship group remains engaged with the individual or family they help resettle for a year, helping them with day-to-day challenges. “The sponsoring group is there at other times when [the ICA] is not here. So if on a Sunday morning something happens in the apartment, say the smoke alarm goes off and the newcomer doesn’t know what it is and is freaking out, and doesn’t know how to call the landlord on their own, there’s somebody to pick up the phone and come over and calm them down and say, ‘Here’s what this is, sorry we forgot to tell you about the smoke alarm.’” As a manual on the Anglican Diocese’s website states: “The sponsor’s role is to reach out in friendship and to help newcomers become financially self-sufficient, emotionally secure, and culturally adjusted. The sponsors agree to provide most of their needs, from financial support to community orientation and friendship.”

The transition to Canada is generally challenging yet rewarding for both refugees and sponsors. Chris Eve says much depends on the strengths of the people on a sponsorship committee and the needs of the people coming to Canada. “Some folks seem to think that when refugees come here they’re going to be saintly. They’re human like us…there are no broad brush answers.” He says he avoids thinking of them as refugees. “They’re newcomers…and I put a name to the faces. That way my response to them becomes personal and I can see them as people as opposed to representing a problem.”

Refugees become permanent residents when they arrive in Canada, which means they can find jobs and start their lives right away, although Lehr says ICA encourages newcomers to take some time to acclimatize, connect with professional networks, and improve language skills before starting their job hunt. 

Private sponsorship groups can and should access other avenues of support for the refugees they help bring to Victoria. Alvaro Moreno is the director of settlement programs for the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS). He says VIRCS has a two-phase work plan for providing support to any Syrian refugees coming to Victoria in the future. The first phase involves immediate resettlement support. Their five-person team will provide snacks and warm clothes upon arrival at the airport and can also connect refugees with temporary housing while permanent housing is sought. In the second phase, caseworkers will help refugees build a one-year plan that includes connecting them to the job market. 

Morena says the hardest immediate challenge for refugees arriving here is the language barrier that prevents them from communicating effectively. He warns that the challenges for refugees are complex. Moreno himself came to Canada as a refugee from El Salvador in 1985. “In addition to coming from a traumatic experience—leaving your country because of war—arriving in a foreign land with a different culture is like going to a different planet. That adds stress to the situation.” Indeed, one study of Syrian refugees in Germany found that more than half experienced mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The Anglican diocese manual on refugee sponsorship outlines the difficulties resulting from cultural differences and addresses the importance of sponsors establishing boundaries.

Some of the private sponsorship cases in Victoria involve family members. Julie Angus is part of a constituency group partnered with the ICA to sponsor her uncle and his family for resettlement in Victoria. The family of five was living in Aleppo until earlier this year when their apartment building was bombed and the only other family still living in the 10-storey structure was killed. 

“It’s hard for these families to move,” says Angus. “They know they will have nothing when they leave, but finally [my family] decided to move on with the hope that they could resettle elsewhere.” 

Her family is currently in Turkey, along with one million other Syrians, waiting for its application to be processed. “They’re struggling. They’re not able to work, there’s a language barrier. They’re just waiting for an opportunity to start a life elsewhere.” 

Angus says she last saw the family in 2008 during a visit to Syria. She says her uncle studied English and law in university and is an artist. His wife is a hair stylist. Their 19-year-old son hopes to continue studying towards a chemical engineering degree he started in Syria. 

Angus’ group is currently fundraising the $55,000 required to support the family for one year once they arrive ($31,000 has been raised so far). She says she expects the process to take between 2-6 months, but it could be more. (See www.fairfieldrefugeesponsorship.com.) 

With about 10 million Syrians displaced by the civil war, Canadians have both motivation and opportunity to share their blessings.

Liz McArthur is a journalist and broadcaster. She is currently working on Sleepy City, a documentary podcast series she produces out of CFUV Radio.