The world today is facing compounding crises - a global pandemic, famine, and conflict. For the most vulnerable, this reality is especially stark. But in the midst of these challenges, there are so many who support one another in powerful and unexpected ways. In recognition of World Refugee Day on June 20th, we want to bring you a story of how refugee sponsorship has changed the lives of a group of strangers whose lives came together under unique circumstances.
It started in dramatic fashion in spring of 2019 when a generous donor came to MCC and offered to fund a full year of sponsorship for a refugee family - all that was needed were the people to coordinate and support the family when they arrived. In this case, it was a family of four, originally from Ethiopia: Semere*, the father; Eshe*, mother; and their two young children. The older child was born in a detention centre in Libya where they were detained for two years. They came through the Blended Office Visa Referred (BVOR) program in which the UN identifies the most vulnerable cases in urgent need of resettlement.
Sharon Beck: When Kaylee [Perez, Refugee Sponsorship and Settlement Associate at MCC in Ontario] asked me if I could form a group, one of the first people I approached was Joel Pike, a church friend through The Meeting House and who was also involved with an earlier sponsorship. Joel was comfortable with saying “yes” even though at that point I was literally the only confirmed member of this group – he trusted that more would come. And yes, God did rain blessings on us with very special people with diverse skills and backgrounds. This includes Alem, the refugee Joel and I had sponsored previously, who speaks Oromo [the newcomer family’s native language] and could now ‘give back’ in this unique and invaluable way.
Karen Perez: For a while now, I had been searching for ways our family could be involved in helping others. I really wanted something that my kids could be part of. Then Kaylee, our niece, asked if we would like to join a refugee sponsorship group in Oakville. We didn't know anyone, and had no idea what this involved, but we are SO GRATEFUL we said yes!
Karen: I'm a planner, I like to know things ahead of time and have everything ready. Try to imagine my stress level as the day of our family's arrival approached and we had no place for them to stay. The group had found two different apartments, but both had fallen through. One of the landlords bluntly stated he didn’t want to rent to refugees. I was praying and begging God to help us find a place for them to live.
Sharon: The family was due to arrive May 22, 2019, which was a Wednesday. As late as four days before, on Saturday, May 18 we still didn’t have a place for them to stay. While attending a workshop that day about refugee resettlement, I started receiving messages that a place had been located. I can't remember the day I signed the lease but I think it was two days before they arrived! The number of people it took to get the house cleaned, furnished and home-ready in two days was tremendous!
Karen: You cannot imagine my joy when I received an email from Sharon on Saturday with the heading "HOUSING SECURED!" A beautiful, 5-bedroom home with a yard, within walking distance of the grocery store, transit, multicultural centre, YMCA, ESL classes, Kerr St. Mission, and completely within our rent budget. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. God showed that He is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine."
Sharon: Even then, the landlord was a little concerned that he was taking a risk but now he is as much a part of the support group as all of us. He is just one person of many whose hearts have been touched and encouraged and changed by the story and character of Semere and Eshe.
Sharon: Of course one very specific challenge has been the lack of English and indeed the lack of literacy even in their native language, Oromo. But that reminds us that now the parents have this opportunity to learn and so will the children! They were unable to secure spots in the ESL system [when they arrived] and so we started our own ESL team who developed their own resources, met to learn from one another and even provide day care! And so, fast-forward a year to this global pandemic and lots of families may be struggling through distance learning, but our education team continues to run our own distance learning classes that are specifically addressing the needs of the family. The very delay that was a disappointment, is now our strength.
These days, the family is building community around them with their generosity and joyful presence. Semere keeps busy helping neighbours with gardening and yard work projects; Eshe has blessed others with her gift of delicious home-cooking. Recently a neighbour shared with Sharon how much their presence has impacted her life."Every time Semere comes I just keep thinking what a blessing he is and you all are to me. Honestly, sometimes I believe in miracles, actually I really do, and for me this is a miracle."
Karen: We have made new friends from many cultures and backgrounds from within the sponsorship group and beyond. We have eaten new food. We have been part of different celebrations. We have seen everyone come together to help make our Ethiopian family welcome and help set them up for success in their new life here in Canada. We’ve seen how it has impacted our kids. Our daughter Kaitlyn's class had to come up with questions to ask Prime Minister Trudeau. Most of her classmates asked when school was going to start again, when they could see their friends and grandparents, when they could play hockey again, etc. Here's what Kaitlyn asked the PM: “How will this affect the refugees needing to come to Canada?”
For Semere and Eshe, this question weighs profoundly. They have three more children who got left behind in Ethiopia as the family was forced to flee. An application to sponsor them has been submitted but for now, all they can do is wait. In the meantime, however, Semere, Eshe, their two children and the sponsor group members are remembering to be grateful for the many blessings they have shared together.
Sharon: I have had the incredible privilege of seeing all the pieces fall into place at the right time, according to the needs that came up. We sponsors live in this funny tension between “doing” and “letting God do”. This whole experience has been all about finding balance between the two.
Karen: We started this journey with the intention of being a blessing to others, but have instead been blessed ourselves.
Current Reality … and the Peace Project.
On March 16th, the Government of Canada announced that Canada will bar entry to all foreign travellers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, with the exception of certain professionals, U.S. citizens and immediate family members of Canadian citizens.
What does this mean?
- Refugee Arrivals either through Government Assisted Refugees (GARs), Private Sponsored Refugees (PSR) programs is on hold indefinitely.
- Blended Visa Office Referred Program (BVOR) which resettles refugees identified for resettlement by the UNHCR has also been suspended.
- Anticipated number of refugee arrivals from all streams will be fewer this year.
- With the economic reality, up take of sponsorships even if the program resumes will be low as the economic forecast paints a grim picture.
Despite these challenges, MCC continues with our work through creative strategies, like the COVID-19 Peace Project.
This project sprung out of our belief that newcomers have so much to teach us about finding peace in the midst of uncertainty. The Peace Project is a way for sponsors and sponsored families alike to create spaces to learn from each other, and affirm that while we are physically distant, we are not alone.
*Names changed for security purposes.