MCC Photo/Ken Ogasawara

Arla Longhurst at her home in London, Ontario.

As Arla Longhurst stepped into a mosque with two young Muslim girls, she had a moment when she thought, “What will people think?”

The year was 2015. Arla, her husband Gary and a small group of friends and community members from Valleyview Mennonite Church had just welcomed a refugee family from Syria to settle in London, Ontario. This was Arla’s first time involved with a refugee sponsorship. “I worked with a really excellent committee,” reflects Arla. “They were amazing people.” It took all of their ingenuity and skill to make the newcomers’ transition to life in Canada as smooth as possible.

“We received training and support from MCC, which was wonderful,” says Arla. “And the BVOR (Blended Visa Office Referral) program is such a helpful tool to minimize the cost of sponsorship.” In the BVOR program, the federal government pays for roughly half the cost of the private sponsorship.

Logistical tasks are also an important part of the sponsorship process. Arla acknowledges that filling out paperwork is not a passion for most people but it’s a necessary part of the process. She says her husband’s skillset in this area was a huge asset. “Gary is really good with staying on top of the paperwork, the bureaucracy, following up on calls, making appointments.”

One thing Arla recognized from the beginning was that for these newcomer refugees, resettling to Canada was a last resort. “It’s not necessarily the happiest day of their lives as some assume,” Arla explains. “They’ve lost so much. They’ve lost their home, friends, family, everything about their previous way of life.” The trauma they carry from this and the subsequent years living in limbo as refugees is no small challenge. “They've been people who previously were self-sufficient. They could take care of themselves. They could take care of their families. And now they're in a position where they have to ask for help. So as a sponsor, one of the most important things you can do is to help restore the dignity that people have lost.”

Milan and Mariana go Christmas shopping, 2021.Submitted by Arla Longhurst

One way to help restore dignity for the family was to connect them with the wider Syrian Muslim community in London.  

On that day when Arla took the girls to the mosque, the mother and father were unable to attend, so they asked Arla if she could take the girls. Arla’s self-consciousness wasn’t about what her own neighbours or friends would say, but rather about what the people in the mosque would think.

Arla recalls the Arabic-speaking interpreter they worked with confessing that she and others in the Muslim community were curious about Arla and her fellow sponsors. “Yeah, we wondered about you… What is a Christian Church doing sponsoring Muslims?” they wondered. Months later, however, they expressed their gratitude to Arla and the group for how much they had done for the newcomer family.

Arla, for her part, thought that sponsoring a Muslim family was only natural. “I felt that Christian churches should go out of their way to sponsor people from other religions and denominations,” says Arla. “I could see that it was building a bridge between the communities.”

The family celebrates their Canadian citizenship in February 2021.Submitted by Arla Longhurst

Today, the bridges that were built are as strong as ever. Arla and Gary remain friends with that Syrian family. They celebrate special occasions together, like birthdays and the day the family received their Canadian citizenship. One of Arla’s ongoing pleasures is to be invited to the park with the Syrian women and their children to chat, drink coffee and enjoy each other’s company. “We helped welcome them to our community,” reflects Arla, “and now they welcome me to theirs. It’s wonderful to be a part of their life.”


If you, your church, or your community group are curious about ways you could welcome newcomers, contact our Migration and Resettlement department at refugee@mcco.ca.