Syrian Refugee Crisis –A Local Canadian Response
The picture of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old boy, who washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach after drowning along with 11 others including his mother and brother as they tried to escape war-torn Syria, set into motion widespread outpourings of concern for the plight of Syrian refugees, as well as strong criticism of Canada for the inadequacy of its response to struggling migrants.
On September 28, 2015 in London, Ontario, about sixty concerned individuals gathered in the basement of a local high school to discuss grassroots activities happening in the local area as well as current federal policies in place regarding Syrian refugee sponsorship. Political leaders, lawyers, academics, educational administrators from Western University, and religious leaders from various Christian and Muslim backgrounds were present to share and to learn about what is being done and what may be done together through their respective community organizations.
The discussion was practical and focused on three areas: 1) Awareness and fund-raising, 2) Sponsoring refugees (paperwork), and 3) Settlement. A representative from the mayor’s office reported on the tens of thousands of dollars that have been raised by the people of London to support refugee sponsorship in the city. The representative shared, too, that mayors across the country are involved in a cross-Canada collaboration to settle more families –a Canadian mayors’ caucus rather than a city council initiative (the city’s mayor did stop by the meeting to comment on the initiative). Priorities for the mayor’s office include ensuring prominent coverage of the issue by the media and seeking community partners so as to provide information for those interested in helping when refugee families arrive. Another priority was to ensure that newcomer families would be given the space and respect for privacy to settle into their new surroundings.
Speakers with legal expertise in the area of refugee sponsorship provided information on everything from the different kinds of sponsorship that exist in Canada, visa programs, and helpful form completion webinars, to new policies and practices only recently available. Previously, refugees sponsored by spontaneous groups of sponsors had to be recognized by the UN in order to proceed, but, in light of the current situation of displaced peoples from Syria and Iraq, the requirement was rescinded this past September 19, 2015. A local Christian outreach worker reported that the Canadian government has sped up the procedures and interview processes from three to four or more months to completion now in the span of weeks: close to forty family applications have been submitted since.
Political workers gave insight into websites and forms that have been set up to share information, receive donations, and to list donations in kind that could be matched by the government, such as medical and dental services. A person working with Lifeline Syria shared numbers on the UN lists of registered Syrian refugees and spoke on behalf of Syrian families who are already members of the London community and are themselves eager to help. A Catholic sister who has been involved in refugee work for the past twenty years provided handouts on the practical and financial needs required to settle a family.
The legal experts and university administrator addressed questions regarding family reunification channels in place by the Canadian government and how to assist newcomers with educational completion, for example, when transcripts are missing. The administrator assured that needs would be met and scholarship programs made to facilitate implementation. Finally, numbers of families anticipated to arrive and timelines were requested by people interested in volunteering their services to raise awareness, funds for settlement, connections with Government fund-matching programs, clothing drives, and advocacy work.
The degree to which Christian churches have a hand in undertaking community efforts to sponsor and settle refugee families is notable. Many of the churches in Canada, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the United Church of Canada have long-term sponsorship agreements with the Canadian government, which enable them to sponsor successfully refugee families with a degree of greater ease. Many of the people present at the meeting were local leaders of faith communities. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter on September 8, 2015 exhorting all Canadian Catholics to undertake actions of involvement and assistance in the crisis. The Archdiocese of Toronto has initiated a special emergency appeal called ‘Project Hope.’ A local Catholic university parish, Christ the King, together with its institutional home, King’s University College, has sponsored a family and seven refugees in total, from Iraq and Syria. While the enormity of the crisis can be overwhelming, the efforts and will of people to help in big and small ways is a sign of hope and reason for joy.