Samuel Tewoldemedhin is an elder at Shalom Worship and Healing Centre, a vibrant congregation that worships out of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Samuel is spearheading a mission within Shalom that is investing heavily in refugee sponsorship and resettlement through MCC. In 2019 alone, the Shalom congregation is expected to resettle 17 individuals in total.
To put that into context, the vast majority of churches and sponsor groups handle only one family at a time—and for good reason. Sponsoring a refugee family requires commitment, patience, and a strong support network. But the motivation for Samuel and others in the Shalom congregation has been personal. For this congregation, made up mostly of Eritreans and other Africans who have themselves had to flee persecution and violence, refugee sponsorship has been a way to bring their own relatives to safety in Canada. But the paperwork has been arduous, and the process has sometimes taken years.
Several years ago, after speaking to Moses Moini, Refugee Program Coordinator at MCC Ontario, Samuel realized there was another way to do refugee sponsorship: the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program. Refugees processed through BVOR have already been identified by the UN as the most vulnerable. In addition, they have already been screened for security and travel clearances by the time a sponsor group enters the scene, so the wait time is only a few months.
As Samuel says, “I liked it, because you know what? I’m trying to bring my relatives or my family, but at the same time, there are many people suffering and in danger. Helping people from anywhere...is a good thing.”
BVOR is a win-win arrangement for sponsors and refugees—for a limited time (until August 2, 2019), almost the entire costs of the 12-month sponsorship are covered, thanks to extra funding from the federal government and a private fund. The sponsor group would only have to raise the startup costs for things like furniture, household items, and food staples, much of which can be donated in kind.
Fleeing violence and starting anew in Canada is a path that Samuel knows well. He came to Canada as a refugee himself 11 years ago after suffering persecution in Eritrea for being an Evangelical Christian. “I think the government was afraid of us because we had the biggest gatherings and mobilized a lot of people to be inspired,” he recalls. As Samuel was entering his last year of high school, leading the Christian youth group there suddenly became dangerous for him. Police were called. “I had to discontinue my education at that time,” he says.
Samuel and other believers continued to worship in secret in friends’ houses and in basements, but the police crackdowns became unbearable, and Samuel had to flee.
Samuel Tewoldemedhin and his family (left to right Nathanael Samuel, Misgana Sereke and Eliana Samuel) are spearheading a mission to choose welcome at Shalom Worship and Healing Centre in Kitchener.MCC photo
After spending four years in Sudan as a refugee, he and his wife were called up to be resettled in Canada. Eleven years later, Samuel has a firmly rooted life in Canada. He can worship freely with fellow Eritrean Christians—ironically, something he could not do in Eritrea. Five years ago he became a Canadian citizen, an important symbolic and practical step. He has a family now— two young children. Asked if he would move back to Eritrea, he says, it is “impossible. Even if the situation had changed [for Christians], my life is here in Canada now, my kids only know Canada, their friends and schools are here. I am Canadian now.”
Samuel’s story is one that has played out tens of thousands of times in Canada over the past 40 years since MCC helped to develop the Private Sponsorship of Refugees model with the federal government. Our communities become richer, more vibrant, and more compassionate when we choose welcome.
Today the need is greater than ever. With over 70 million people forcibly displaced world-wide, Canadians are leading the world in refugee sponsorship. But even so, there are BVOR applicants who are desperately waiting to be matched with sponsors.
If you feel moved to act on this crisis or would simply like to learn more, please contact our Refugee & Resettlement Associate Kaylee Perez directly at email@example.com
Check out choosewelcome.ca for more stories and info about the BVOR program.