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Churches among the first to respond to Syrian refugee crisis

Gloria Peters-Matthies was reading an article in her church’s denominational magazine on the Syrian refugee crisis when she felt a call from God. A line in the article mentioning that some churches were sponsoring refugee families “completely jumped out at me,” she says.

“It felt like God was saying, ‘I want you to get involved.’”

After some research she realized sponsoring refugee families is “doable.” Peters-Matthies attends the Cobourg Alliance Church and approached her pastor with the idea. She later found out two other local church members also brought the idea to their pastors, which was discovered through an area-wide ministerial meeting.

“It felt like God was not just calling me to get involved but calling the community to get involved,” Peters-Matthies says.

Now called the Better Together Refugee Sponsorship (BTRS), eight churches and several community organizations are collaborating to bring up to seven Syrian refugee families to Northumberland County in Ontario. Peters-Matthies and Hillary Veley are co-coordinators for the project, which has more than 100 volunteers.

The community’s supportive response, reaching beyond the church communities to the community at large, is what most energizes Peters-Matthies.

Veley would pray about what it would look like if a single church took in one refugee family, and that happened for every church across the country. “I feel like that’s happening, so many churches are getting involved,” Veley says.

Collaboration blossoms
BTRS is sponsoring families through the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program with its Sponsorship Agreement Handler – the Justice and Compassion Department of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

The churches involved include the Calvary Baptist Church, Church on the Hill, Cobourg Alliance Church, Fellowship Baptist Church, Grace Christian Reformed Church, Grace Evangelical Missionary Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Salvation Army Cobourg Community Church. There are a variety of other partners and supporters including the Northumberland United Way, the Town of Cobourg and the Port Hope Community Health Centre.

“When you see that many churches and community organizations coming together under one umbrella saying, ‘This is our heart and we want to do the right thing,’ it’s really exciting,” Veley says. “There are always challenges of working together but by and large everyone is willing to put any differences aside and just say we want to come under this common goal and common mission.”

Because of the size of their endeavour, Better Together put in place some overarching committees including an executive, household donations, prayer, finance, communications, fundraising and health.

Seven teams of five to eight people are being developed, each called a “core team.” The core teams include members from various churches and organizations in town and will each support one family for one year in all aspects of their transition to Canada.

The Parish welcomes refugees to Peterborough
Michael VanDerHerberg is a member at the Parish, a church in Peterborough that welcomed its Syrian refugee sponsorship family Dec. 7. VanDerHerberg has been involved in refugee aid for a decade, having learned about it through his wife’s grandfather. He is also a refugee resettlement co-ordinator at the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough.

The Parish submitted its application for a refugee family to its sponsor in August, ahead of many other groups who have families arriving in the months ahead.

While he waited to greet the Syrian family of five – a mother, father, four-year-old twins and a three-year-old – at the airport VanDerHerberg says he could tell it was a rich moment. There was apprehension and nervousness, with the desire to be liked but the unknown present.

Lessons learned and looking ahead
When the family arrived, they saw their welcoming party with prepared signs and had an amicable greeting through an interpreter. VanDerHerberg says they quickly discovered the Google translator phone app works well to communicate between Arabic and English.

Members of the sponsoring team met with the family the morning after they arrived, answering their questions. A prepared calendar was helpful to gauge the family’s interest in attending different events, and see how involved the family wanted to be.

VanDerHerberg suggests arranging temporary housing for the refugee family’s arrival, and then giving the family the ability to decide where they stay. With the Parish, a landlord in town offered a three bedroom townhouse to the refugee family free for a year, making it likely that will be where the family stays.

“That would be an example of a [housing] mistake,” notes VanDerHerberg. “You could give choice and you could give that sense of empowerment as it were for families when they first arrive.”

Another potential pitfall is helping the refugee family either too much or too little. This often depends on the family, the sponsoring group and the resources available, VanDerHerberg says. “You really want to give them the opportunity to assert themselves,” he says, adding groups that want to do everything for a family are not always helpful.

When asked what advice she would give another church interested in getting started on sponsoring a refugee family, Peters-Matthies says to first get your prayer support in place and then find the right people for the right jobs. “Don’t try to rush the process,” she notes.

Veley says the group is grappling with wanting to be as prepared as possible and what it means to provide total support, whether financially or culturally. The core teams are constantly having conversations around cultural preparedness.

First, who are we?
Asking who we are as a welcoming community and what that means as an expression of our faith is a relevant conversation, VanDerHerberg says. “I think it starts with recognizing that other and different are OK,” he says, adding having a first reaction of a willingness to reach out rather than one of fear or closed mindedness is key.

People often ask Peters-Matthies how the group is dealing with the negatively out there around bringing over refugees, but she says they are not directly experiencing it.

Early in the sponsorship process Peters-Matthies says she wondered how to educate the community to help them understand and be welcoming. But due to the crisis being so large and the amount of media coverage people are aware of the issue, she says.

“Our community is so much more aware now because of the media and I really trust that they will be welcoming,” she says.

When envisioning the best thing that could happen, Peters-Matthies says it is that the refugees feel welcomed and cared for by the community, as well as safe and secure and start to heal from the trauma they have been through.

“I would hope that some of the relationships that are built between the core team people and their families would really grow into good friendships that would last,” she says.

Better Together has opened up new possibilities for the faith community in Northumberland that weren’t present before.

“We believe this extends – for Northumberland at least – beyond this immediate sponsorship,” Veley says, adding she believes this level of collaboration will lead to something bigger.

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