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Reaching Out
Churches are joining forces to sponsor refugees and help them build new lives in Canada.

Alain* has been on the run since childhood. When he was nine, his sister and father, a Hutu and minor government official, were slain by a Tutsi rival. Ethnic fighting ravaged his native Burundi; his mother was likely killed in the conflict a year later. His elder brother was forced to become a child soldier - a fate Alain narrowly escaped.

…the family arrived in Canada - almost two and a half years after the process began.

As a young teenager, he fled to Cairo, Egypt, with help from a family friend. He has been there for 10 years, and lives in a small apartment with several other men - both Tutsi and Hutu - whom he calls "brothers."

For three years, Brian Merrett and the refugee committee at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal, have struggled to bring Alain to Canada as a privately sponsored refugee. "The pain of being a refugee is one of the worst a human being can experience: the pain of having a decision of living your life in the hands of someone else," Alain told the committee in an email. An interviewing officer rejected Alain's case in July, 2007.

"We were extremely disappointed," says Merrett, who chairs the committee. "When we took up the sponsorship, it was heartwarming to see the response. The whole congregation realized this is the mission the outreach committee should be doing." The team hired a lawyer, and pushed to bring the case to federal court.

There are two ways for congregations to approach sponsorship. They can sponsor refugees who have been approved by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but require a Canadian sponsor to complete the process. Or, as in the case of St. Andrew and St. Paul, they can sponsor an individual who has yet to be approved. In these cases, applicants must prove they will be in personal danger if they return to their home countries. Of those who apply as privately sponsored refugees, half are rejected.

"In this case, it looked like [the interviewing officer] hadn't read documentation stating that [Alain's] father's killer was a politician who was still in power," says Glynis Williams, director of Action Réfugiés, Montreal, and interim refugee coordinator for Presbyterian World Service and Development. "In the end, they didn't have to plead in court; the government's lawyer conceded the case."

Alain was granted a second interview in September, 2008 and was approved.

To become a sponsor, congregations must prove they can provide financial support for refugees for one year, and help them find housing, education, and employment. They must also be endorsed by the national church, through Presbyterian World Service & Development, which has a sponsorship agreement with the government. Each year, 3,500 refugees enter the country through private sponsorships, and in the past two years at least 18 Presbyterian congregations have taken part.

Of the four refugee cases Rev. Bob Faris has worked on as associate minister of Beaches, Toronto, only two have successfully made it to Canada.

"The process has called into question some of the assumptions and stereotypes we had about ourselves and refugees - that Canada's an open country that's easy to get into as a refugee, or that we're a welcoming people," Faris says.

The church has helped a Congolese man and a Colombian mother and her five children, aged eight to 18, settle in Toronto. But after the first year, when government requirements were met, some members struggled with an ongoing sense of moral commitment.

There's a difference between providing support for someone and building a dependence on that support. It can be challenging for a church to find a working balance, says Faris.

But the challenges are worth the effort. The Faramarzian family, from Iran, converted to Christianity from Islam; a decision that forced them to flee to Cyprus, where they lived for several years. The local government rejected their refugee application, believing they had not truly converted. Ali Faramarzian was jailed for five months. "Life had become very difficult for us, but during all that hard time God never left us on our own," says his wife Rahy.

Norine Love, a member of the refugee committee at Knox Spadina, Toronto, spent countless hours researching and writing a sponsorship application for them.

Love points out that converts in strictly Muslim countries are often in grave danger. The sponsorship process was a lot of work, but was obviously worthwhile, she says.

In November 2008, the family arrived in Canada - almost two and a half years after the process began.

Sponsorship can be an opportunity for interdenominational and interfaith work. In Etobicoke, a trio of ministers, Rev. Paul Kang of St. Andrew's Humber Heights, Rev. In Kee Kim of St. Timothy's, a Korean-speaking congregation, and Father Al Budzin of St. Philip's, an Anglican church, brought their congregations together to sponsor an Afghani woman and her two children.

The woman is Muslim, a religious distinction Kang says they never considered.

"We saw people, not religion," he says, citing the parable of the Good Samaritan as a guiding principle for the project. "I think this has challenged people's understanding and faith in some respects because this isn't a Christian family that's worshipping with us on Sunday, and who we see once a week."

Kang said the project has "really brought people together," and the churches are looking for more joint projects in the future.

Merrett saw similar results. "It's created an incredible drawing together in our church," he says. "Our congregation is made up of many nationalities, and this experience puts a face on an issue that's so devastating in our world today and has had an almost a galvanizing effect. Everyone talks about it. We're starting to have more of an understanding."

Lucinda Lyman, an elder and head of the outreach committee at St. Andrew and St. Paul, says the elongated process has not dampened their passion. "What's the church all about if it's not reaching out even in such a small way? It gives us more of a window on the world," she says. "And I honestly, totally feel, at least personally, that we're gaining a lot more than Alain is."

* Alain's name has been changed.

Connie Purvis is staff reporter for the Presbyterian Record.

Originally published in the Presbyterian Record, March 2009.




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