It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the tragic death of young Alan Kurdi. It is quite phenomenal to think about all that has happened on the refugee front in Canada since that very sad day. It is also tragic that on average two children drown every day as a result of dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach freedom and a new life. Parents in desperate situations make difficult decisions for their families to leave behind what they know and love – they step out in faith hoping for a brighter future. Sometimes they find their way to a new start – either through escaping or sponsorship to another country – and unfortunately, sometimes they do not.
No one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.
- Warson Shire
Over the past year at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario it was absolutely humbling to witness and be a part of the movement that welcomed those who needed help, a fresh start and a new home. In less than a year, our program grew from supporting an average of 8 sponsorship groups to welcome 50 refugee newcomers to now supporting 224 sponsorship groups to support 663 newcomers [with more on the way!]. We had the privilege of helping to embrace approximately 400 children into Ontario communities so that they did not have to go through the tragic circumstance experienced by the Kurdi family. Every day we witness that many people in Ontario have not forgotten Alan Kurdi or the tragedy that is faced by too many refugees around the world. We are so thankful for the tremendous outpouring of generosity by so many people who have made the private sponsorship and settlement process a success!
We know that this growth came about because of the tremendous surge of interest in the plight of Syrian refugees brought on by the death of Alan Kurdi that caught the hearts and souls of so many people across Canada. As well, the federal government’s commitment to bring 25,000 refugee newcomers to Canada also contributed to the growth. We believe that many people turned to us at MCC to help with private refugee sponsorship because of our rich history as one of the first Sponsorship Agreement Holders in 1979 with the federal government. We have been actively engaged in sponsorship ever since that date. As well, MCC has been actively engaged in responding to issues in the Middle East with a presence in that region since the 1950’s.
And now that we have been witness to this incredible outpouring of generosity and community welcome, we have to start thinking about what comes next.
The over 663 refugee newcomers that we have helped to settle through our many sponsorship groups across Ontario are doing well. The sponsorship groups have been absolutely amazing in their steadfast commitments to help the newcomers adjust to life in a new community and begin to make a home here. Most newcomers have completed the initial stages of settlement and are actively learning English. Many of the adults are keen to find employment so that they can support their families. Many of the approximately 400 children that arrived will be entering into their next school year and soon will be catching up to their English speaking cohorts. New relationships are being established that will outlast the sponsorship year and contribute to healthy diversity and multicultural connections within communities across the province.
From where we sit at MCC Ontario, we sensed that there was a shift in our cultural welcome and acceptance of newcomers. We witnessed so many people say “count me in” and “sign me up” as a part of the private sponsorship program that is over and above what governments are doing to respond to the needs of refugees. Individuals and groups responded with incredible compassion rather than with fear. The needs of refugees became top news stories and local responses became part of general dialogue. Groups were able to raise sufficient sponsorship funds in record times. Practical hurdles to sponsorship and settlement were overcome by groups and communities. It was amazing to see what groups and communities were able to achieve with the political and societal will that abounded. We are so grateful for all that was achieved to help a significant number of people who truly needed a safe place to start over.
So the question is – was this all just a blip? Or did something really shift in our ongoing sense of responsibility to reach out and help those in need – regardless of their location, race or religion? Did our collective imagination get sparked enough by the image of young Alan Kurdi to continue in the journey of compassion, welcome and inclusion? How do we harness this interest and memories of the Kurdi’s tragedy to collectively address the root causes behind the growing numbers of refugees in the world today? There is much to be done and I hope and pray that remembering Alan’s story, along with all the other amazing stories from the past year, will inspire and motivate us to ensure that this was not just a blip in time and that we continue to work at improving the lives of refugees around the world.
Wendy Adema serves as the Program Director for MCC Ontario and gives leadership to the Refugee Resettlement team.