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Canadian churches kept waiting for refugees

08 April 2016


Talking numbers: John McCallum speaks at a press conference after a meeting about global responsibility-sharing through pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, at the United Nations in Geneva, on 30 March

Talking numbers: John McCallum speaks at a press conference after a meeting about global responsibility-sharing through pathways for admission o...

TWO churches in Canada that formed a sponsorship programme to resettle Syrian families from Turkey have said that they are “frustrated” with the Canadian government for slowing down the resettlement process.

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, promised to sponsor the resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 — a target that was achieved in February. Of these, 40 per cent are reported to have entered the country through private sponsorships run by churches, charities, and individuals, or a programme combining both private and government support.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Syrian Refugee Project, a joint programme led by St Mark’s, and Grace United Church, in Ontario, has complained, however, that, despite being approved by the government in January to raise the money, and having been told to expect a family of six “imminently”, they have not yet arrived.

Their host, St Mark’s, said that donations from parishioners, local residents, and institutions have been wasted on renting a three-bedroom house in the area since mid-February, as it is unoccupied.

A newsletter on St Mark’s website states that, “with the number of processing officers reduced overseas, government flights stopped, and priorities shifting, we are worried about our family’s chances of coming soon, even with their earlier approval. And, like other sponsoring groups across the country, we grew more frustrated each day at the confusion surrounding cases like ours.”

In a letter to the Immigration Minister, John McCallum, last week, the group called for “urgent assistance” to complete the process. It stated that, after being approved to resettle two parents and four children — whom the UNHCR had considered an “urgent” case — the church were told that the family were not “travel-ready” but that they should expect their arrival by 29 February at the latest.

“We were told they would be arriving imminently; so we acted accordingly,” Virginia Mainprize, who chairs the group, said last week.

The letter also stated that the group had been unable to obtain information through the diocese of Niagara, which is handling their request, except for the phone numbers of the family members, with whom they are now in regular contact through WhatsApp: “It is obvious from those exchanges that the family is just as concerned and confused about the continuing delays as we, their sponsors, have been.”

The signatories warned that if they did not receive more information by 20 April, they would have “no alternative” but to attempt to release themselves from the lease, to which they are legally bound.

They also wrote that they were “dismayed” to learn that other sponsorships are in a similar situation: “As sponsors, our increasing frustration and potential loss is indeed discouraging, but this is nothing in comparison to the dashed hopes of our refugee family, whose members remain in a very difficult and tenuous situation.”

A spokeswoman for St Mark’s, Debi Goodwin, said: “We see the unexpected delay as a ‘hiccup’ in the process; one that is frustrating, because we can’t explain the delay to the family. But I believe we’re all still proud of the Canadian reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis, especially when we look south of the border.”

Meanwhile, Grace United Church welcomed a family of four on 21 February. The church’s spokesperson, Bob Goodwin, said, however, that the process had not been straightforward. “We received 48 hours’ notice of their arrival, which was subsequently cancelled due to unrest and bombing in Turkey,” he said on Tuesday. “The family did not know anything about who we were, where they were going, anything about the arrangements for support.

“We had rented and equipped an apartment for them; so by the time they had been in Canada 36 hours, they were in their new home. They were, and remain, very thankful to be here and well looked after.”

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