Open wide to the world

Canadian churches renew commitments to ‘welcome the stranger’

In early November, the government released a report on its program to assist refugees, stating the obvious to those on the ground: federal aid often falls short.

“The government’s financial and resettlement supports are ‘inadequate’ to help newcomers rebuild their lives,” CBC reported, and “most refugees brought in by the federal government don’t have enough money to cover basic needs like housing and food, and aren’t able to obtain language and training programs fast enough to help them become more financially self-sufficient.”

Hanan and her husband Farid (who did not want to be identified by their real names) feel this reality acutely. They arrived in Vancouver from Beirut as Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs) this July with their 8-year-old son. Originally from Baghdad, they have been refugees since 2006, spending eight years in Syria after fleeing war in Iraq, only to find themselves escaping to Lebanon in 2014. While it still feels like a dream for them to be safely in Canada, new challenges have arisen: four months after arrival, they are still not in English classes due to long wait lists. The family receives approximately $1,400 per month in Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) benefits. However, the rent of their one-bedroom apartment in Surrey is $1,000, leaving them stretched to cover food, public transit, school supplies, clothing for their first winter and furnishings for their apartment beyond the essentials provided by the government. While they were told that the Canadian Child Tax Benefit for their son will help with this, an error in processing has resulted in a delay.

“Canada is beautiful,” says Hanan, “and so are the people. And there is freedom, safety, electricity, water.”

“But,” she adds, “we did not expect it to be this difficult.”

Farid is eager to work, but without English and with physical and mental health complications, including the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to torture during detainment in Syria, this is currently nearly impossible. Hanan is also seeking employment, though long-term studies suggest that rushing into work can be detrimental if it does not also allow time and space for language acquisition.

“We want to learn, and we want to work,” says Hanan earnestly. “But right now, we feel we don’t even have the opportunity.”

Early church sponsorship
Alongside the government program is Private Sponsorship, the model with which churches are most familiar. While multiple factors affect the long-term outcomes of each (including that GARs are often more vulnerable, which can mean higher health needs and more trauma), one of the undisputed outcomes is that Private Sponsored Refugees tend to have better social and relational support and networks.

Thang Nguyen agrees. When he arrived in Canada in 1979 at the age of 25, he knew only that Canada had approved resettling he and his wife as refugees. After fleeing Vietnam for Hong Kong on a sailboat with 58 others, they spent four days in a Refugee Welcome Center in Edmonton before boarding a plane for Vancouver, with no idea of who would meet them there.

At the Vancouver airport, a group from New Westminster Christian Reformed Church (CRC) was waiting to welcome the young couple from Vietnam. Several months prior, 10 such groups from the church had committed to assist people fleeing war and regimes in southeast Asia. They were among the first to become involved in a new initiative known as Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.

Marianne Van Delft was a part of that first group. “We knew almost nothing about Vietnam,” she says now. “We were going to the library, taking out books on Vietnamese culture and food, and trying to find Vietnamese-English dictionaries.”

Despite the unknowns for both parties, the relationship thrived. Thirty-seven years later, members of the sponsoring group still see Thang, his wife Nga and his Canadian-born daughter Marguerite regularly. Thang’s parents were sponsored by a church in North Vancouver before he arrived, and Marianne has been present with the wider family for births, deaths and other milestones. She and her husband George have travelled to Asia twice since 1990, visiting refugee camps in Thailand and Vietnam to meet more of the people their church would sponsor and learning more about the culture from which so many of their new friends had come.

A new path for refugees
The Van Delfts’ church joined dozens of CRCs and hundreds of other churches across the country in sponsoring thousands of newcomers in those early years, part of the new wave of Private Sponsorship that would assist in bringing over 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees to Canada between 1979 and 1980. In the 50s and 60s, a different version of the program assisted waves of Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Ugandan Asians and Chileans in coming to Canada.

Since 1979, the year Nguyen arrived, this program has offered refuge to over 275,000 people fleeing war, natural disaster and persecution, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees. Between 1979 and 2014, Canada admitted nearly 981,100 refugees total, including Government-Assisted. The country had, of course, been welcoming in refugees for decades before that, but the Private Sponsorship Program opened up a new path, one in which average Canadians could come together to offer a home and support either as an organization, a community or even a “Group of Five” individuals.

In the four decades since the program’s inception, the CRC’s Relief and Development agency World Renew has become an official “Sponsorship Agreement Holder” with the Canadian government, and CRCs such as New West have continued to sponsor. The Syrian crisis brought renewed interest in this form of support, and in the past year 60 CRC congregations across the country participated in sponsorship through World Renew (either welcoming a family or opening an application), 32 for the first time. That represents fully a quarter of all Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, but Darren Roorda, Canadian Ministries Director for the CRC, estimates that this number would rise to 80 percent if it included the many other diverse ways that congregations are involved with supporting refugees, sometimes in partnership with other faith groups.

Filling in the gaps
In B.C., these diverse forms of welcome include multiple CRCs in the lower mainland who are offering additional support to GARs in the form of rental subsidies, assistance with grocery costs, and social and relational support.

Members of Ladner CRC were some of the first to jump in. Leveraging his long experience with private sponsorship, Gerry Bouman agreed to sit on the board of a new community organization in Ladner formed specifically to support Syrian families entering the community.

Fleetwood CRC in Surrey quickly followed, locating housing for a newly-arrived GAR family while also helping them to become connected in their community. This support broadened when Epp Talstra identified a business opportunity. After trying some baked goods made by the father in the family, who was a baker in Syria but had been unable to seek full-time employment due to health complications, Talstra began distributing the cookies by donation, allowing the baker to begin his trade again while introducing Canadians to Arab sweets.

Jacqueline and Brian Oostenbrink and Andy and Mary Braacx from Nelson Avenue Community Church (CRC) became connected to a Government-Assisted family through another family that New West CRC was privately sponsoring. Today, they visit regularly and help with English practice. When asked about their volunteer work, the four seem almost puzzled.

“I don’t really see myself as a volunteer,” says Brian, and the others nod in agreement.

“And I’d ditch the refugee label,” adds Andy. “They’re just my friends.”

Members of the Refugee Team at Willoughby CRC in Langley, while supporting multiple Private sponsorships, have stepped in as volunteers with the non-profit Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSofBC), assisting GARs in their community.

And First CRC Vancouver, neighbours to a newly-opened refugee and immigrant Welcome Centre run by ISSofBC, is now home to my new Chaplain and Refugee Support Mobilizer position, funded by the CRCs of B.C. and aimed at helping us further open our doors to holistic support of GARs and other newcomers.

Through this, our churches are learning of new resources for support, and finding ways for collaboration with people across the province involved in this work. ISSofBC in Vancouver had to stop taking volunteer applications after an overwhelmingly positive response last winter. And organizations such as the Muslim Food Bank are leveraging their own extensive experience to help fill the same gaps the churches have observed.

The journey continues
However, while many of the challenges faced by GARs are mitigated in the Private Sponsorship model, there is still a continual learning curve to the Private Sponsorship Program itself, a curve that extends into support of GARs. Necessary voices have stepped in to constructively critique some faulty models of sponsorship, urging that groups seek further training and equipping in regards to what healthy, holistic support can and should look like.

Van Delft’s years of experience have given her some clarity on mistakes made and ways to move ahead.

“God can give you as a gift [to newcomer families]” she says, “but if you’re not careful, you can easily be a stumbling block.” She advises that groups need honesty, trust and flexibility, and must avoid any kind of saviour complex. “The dangers come if you make [the newcomers] into projects, and forget that they are people, and if you begin to think that they absolutely need you – that you’re Jesus for them.”

She adds that further pitfalls of sponsorship include inflexible groups that become controlling of newcomers or fall into the easy temptation of thinking that the group knows what’s better for the family than the family does for itself. The lack of trust in the family to make final decisions on their own lives is part of a superiority complex that she sees as fatal to healthy sponsorship.

Eleanor McComb and Pieter VanderLeek, of Willoughby CRC, echo Van Delft.

“Every family is different,” Eleanor says, and “one of the most important things is to continuously ask questions of the people you’re sponsoring, instead of assuming. Ask them what they need . . . ask them what their hopes are.”

Additionally, newcomers can be hesitant to speak honestly about their experiences with sponsorship groups. Whether a combination of cultural and language barriers and/or the continuing desire to show gratitude, it may not be until decades later that they are able or willing to share what could have been done better.

Cultural differences, language barriers and differing expectations can create misunderstandings that both parties must work to resolve. Karissa Prins, part of a sponsorship group from Woodynook CRC in Lacombe, Alberta, is refreshingly honest on this: “I once, while super frustrated, yelled out, ‘I didn’t sign up for this!’” she says, but “I immediately paused and thought, ‘Actually, I literally signed up for this. On official government papers. AND, as a Christian, this is exactly what I signed up for: serving the poor, the homeless, the orphans, the abused.’ . . . [It] made me pause for sure. I’ve definitely been moved out of my comfort zones this year.”

But she, like others, sees more than the challenge, adding “Refugees have been a blessing to our life . . . we see our world with new eyes, open wide to the joys and the sufferings of the wider global community.”

The Oostenbrinks and Braacxs at Nelson Avenue Community Church agree. Building relationships with a newcomer family has been “honouring and humbling,” says Jacqueline.

In the midst of these successes and struggles, those with experience see where they’ve come.

“I was lucky then, I know that,” says Nguyen, on his arrival in B.C. in 1979 when housing was far cheaper and job opportunities far greater, “but it was still hard then, and I know it will be hard now. It takes time – time to adapt to society, time to feel happy again,” reflecting that it took him at least five years to begin to feel at home.

But “there is so much joy,” adds McComb of Willougby, “in seeing the people you sponsor thrive,” noting that the Burmese family who were one of the first that her small group supported now contribute regularly to the church’s refugee fund.

“I love watching as [the newcomers] begin to feel more self-assured, and start investigating on their own how to move forward.”

“We have these deep discussions about justice but sometimes you just have to take the step and do what you can – promote justice, love and mercy – that was Jesus’ whole ministry,” she adds. Vander Leek, beside her, chimes in: “We know we’re only a drop in the bucket in terms of the global refugee crisis. But it’s still a drop.”

  • Dena Nicolai is a student in the Master of Christian Studies Program at Regent College in Vancouver. She lived and worked in Egypt for four years between 2006 and 2011.

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