What does it mean to be Canadian? The answers are as numerous as there are Canadians, but for many, Canada means more than maple syrup and hockey: Canada means a place for new life.
For Amen and his wife Nasreen, new life was quite literal. Their daughter was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon mere days before their arrival in Toronto, and in celebration of that new start, they named her Canada. Two years later, little Canada is a curious, adventurous toddler, adapting with her family to her home in Canada.
However, many around the world today do not have a country to call home.
While a record number of refugees worldwide continues to grow – now at over 25 million – settlement spaces for the most vulnerable of these continues to shrink. The United Nations has identified 1.2 million refugees as the most vulnerable and in need of resettlement, but the targets set out by the major resettlement countries for the number of refugees they will take in a year, have plummeted from a high of 200,000 two years ago to only 60,000 spaces worldwide in 2018.
"Canada is a model for refugee sponsorship. Canada’s private sponsorship program is something that the UNHCR wants to export to the rest of the world."
- Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR
As if this bottleneck of need versus available help is not distressing enough, consider that the average time a refugee spends in a refugee camp is a shocking 15 years.
Against the crushing weight of these numbers, Canadians are in a unique position to lift up many in need. Led by MCC, Canada was the first country in the world to institute an official partnership between citizens and government to allow for private sponsorship of refugees, and to this day is one of only a handful of countries worldwide with such a program. A further development of the program has come in the form of the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program.
Despite the clunky name, it is a revolutionary initiative. There are three key features that make BVOR ideal for sponsors:
- It targets the most vulnerable refugees.
- Unlike named private sponsorship (where sponsors choose specific people to bring to Canada), the federal government provides around 40% of the costs of the one-year sponsorship.
- The refugees are already vetted, are travel-ready and could arrive In as little as four months.
For 2018, Canada has set a target of bringing an additional 1,500 refugees through the BVOR program, above and beyond Canada’s initial commitment of 7,500 government-sponsored refugees. However, now halfway through the year and with time running out, there are fewer than 200 BVOR refugees matched with sponsors. “We have until the end of October to save 1,000 people,” stated Kaylee Perez, Refugee Sponsorship Associate at MCC. “It’s heartbreaking – these are children, women-led families, the most vulnerable – and they’re looking to Canada and saying ‘we’re here, we’re ready, who can help us?’ But we’re struggling to find enough sponsors to match them with.”
There are stories of hope, however. Like Amen, Nasreen, and baby Canada, Adolphine Jules and Kashinde Monde and their family (pictured above) were also sponsored through the BVOR program two years ago, and are now happily adjusting to life in Canada. The sponsoring group called “Neighbours Without Borders” had initially signed on to help a Syrian family but decided to switch to a BVOR family after the wait time stretched from a few months to nearly a year, forcing them to move out of the apartment they had lovingly furnished for their anticipated Syrian family. “In the final analysis, a displaced family is a displaced family,” says Greg Humbert, sponsor group member.
Canada is a leader on the global stage when it comes to refugee resettlement, says Perez, and the compassion and generosity of sponsors is a huge part of that opportunity. “At a time when we’re seeing outrage over separated families, this is a way for Canadians to help protect refugee families.”