Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 10, 1999
A helping hand for refugees
Sponsoring groups rescue from sometimes near-impossible situations
By PATIENCE AKPAN
Special to the WCR
When Firozeh Penhani and her family applied to immigrate to Canada as refugees, they were told the process would take three months. In the end, it took two years and three months of anxiety and frustration.
Penhani, her husband and two sons had fled to Japan in 1988 from war-torn Iran at the height of the eight-year Iran-Iraqi conflict. They had seen many of their friends and family members killed and feared it was only a matter of time before it was their turn.
On arriving at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, the family met the first of several obstacles: their younger son, then seven years old, had been brain damaged during the war and failed the required immigration medical test thus narrowing the family's chances of coming to Canada.
A second obstacle soon emerged: they did not qualify for government sponsorship though they met the criteria for convention refugees - people recognized by international law as having legitimate reasons to fear persecution if they return to their home countries.
Just before the Penhanis lost all hope, a letter from the Canadian Embassy arrived at their Tokyo apartment. An organization in Canada had offered to sponsor them.
They were stunned. They knew nobody in Canada, certainly not anyone who knew them enough to want to sponsor them.
But they did not have to be known for the St. Barnabas Refugee Society, in collaboration with Catholic Social Services, to offer to help them come to Canada and assist them financially for 12 months after they had arrived.
It was a major undertaking, but one that CSS, through sponsoring communities, has done for at least 3,200 people since its refugee sponsorship program began in 1979.
CSS was already involved in refugee sponsorship, but it formalized the process through an agreement signed between the Edmonton Archdiocese and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The agreement was primarily aimed at facilitating the sponsorship of Vietnamese refugees from Southeast Asia. But refugees from various parts of the world have been brought to central Alberta through the program in recent years.
CSS administers the program on behalf of the archdiocese but the actual sponsorship is undertaken mainly by religious communities and parishes in the archdiocese.
"We do the leg work for the program," said Christine Baghdady who has worked with CSS in various capacities (as staff and volunteer) since 1989. "We sign the documents. All sponsoring communities must have a covering letter from CSS."
About 35 representatives from 15 of these sponsoring communities gathered April 24 in St. Thomas More Church to share their experiences and exchange tips on refugee sponsorships.
A common challenge faced by many sponsoring communities is money, but the most frustrating part of the project is the waiting period - between when the process begins and when a refugee or a refugee family finally arrives in Edmonton.
Baghdady said the average waiting period is two years, and sometimes refugees have tired of waiting for the Canadian immigration process to be concluded and have immigrated to other countries.
A sponsoring community is required to financially support a refugee and his or her dependents for one year. Communities have used various methods to raise funds - from bake sales to special refugee collection during Mass as well as donations for Baptism, marriages and funerals.
Franciscan Father Denis Vavrek, who has been involved with the program for 14 years, said he also collects furniture and stashes it in the Franciscan priory until there is need for it.
And he only sponsors refugees who already have relatives in Edmonton to reduce the cost of resettling the newcomers.
Admitting that refugee sponsorship involves the sacrifice of a lot of time and money, he told other participants at the day-long event, that the exercise is a rewarding part of his ministry as a priest. "I enjoy it because I see immediately the difference one can make in people's lives."
It gets even more exciting, Vavrek said, because these days, refugees are coming in "by the planeloads," though Paulette Johnson, coordinator of the program at CSS, told the WCR that her office has no record of any arrivals this year. Last year, only 16 people arrived in Edmonton through the program.
However, because so many communities are involved, and working independently, Johnson said, it is difficult for CSS to know how many privately-sponsored refugees have actually arrived until the end of the year.
Vavrek, who also works with the refugee sponsorship committee at Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, said he is constantly asked why refugees are allowed to come to Canada when it would be cheaper to help them in their home countries or neighbouring countries.
"They ask, 'Are they not a drain on our economy?'
"I always say, 'No, they are not a drain on our economy. They are a bonus to Canada. It's their home countries that lose. The contribution that these people make to our society outweighs the initial cost of resettling them."
While sponsors are required to help the refugees resettle, the newcomers also have their own part to play so they can fit into the new society as soon as possible.
For one, refugees, especially those without English, must attend 1,000 hours of ESL classes within the first 12 months of their arriving in Canada.
Many of the frustrations experienced by sponsors emanate from this requirement - getting newcomers, especially the adults, to work on their English.
Often, said Justin Richards of St. Charles Parish, the newcomers find it easier to "ghettoize" themselves in their ethnic communities and speak their own languages without learning English, thus making it difficult for them to find jobs and fully fit in.
Assumption Sister Herma Martin, former pastoral associate with Immaculate Conception Parish, has spent 15 years working with refugees, mainly from Vietnam. Recently, she helped sponsor some French-speaking refugees from Central Africa.
And last Easter Sunday, she became a "grandmother" when one of two pregnant women that she and her colleagues on the social justice committee of the parish recently sponsored had a baby a few months after arriving in Edmonton.
Martin said: "The sponsorship has changed our parish community. It's exciting to see how interested the parishioners are involved in the lives of the newcomers."
Brad Willis, a lawyer and member of the choir at Assumption Parish, has never sponsored a refugee. His church does not have a refugee committee.
But on April 24 at the annual gathering, he was there asking questions, jotting down notes, and asking for phone and fax numbers. In everything he did, or said, there was a sense of urgency in his gait.
He has suddenly been thrown into refugee issues through his recent acquaintance with Augustine Marah, who also sings in the choir and was born in Sierra Leone.
Marah needs to bring in some members of his family (a total of 16 adults and children) from a refugee camp outside Sierra Leone. War has ravaged the West African country for the last 10 years.
Willis and Assumption Parish want to help Marah to bring his family to Canada as refugees, and both - Marah and Willis - attended the gathering in hopes of finding useful information.
"The situation is very distressing and we've got to do something about it," said Willis.
Firozeh Penhani understands just how distressing life can be for displaced or stateless people who have fled their countries but have nowhere else to go.
Often the problems for these people do not end when they arrive in their new country. Resettling in another country and learning a new language come with new challenges.
It is this concern for newcomers that motivated Penhani to seek a job as a counsellor in the settlement program of CSS Community and Immigration Service. She has worked with the program since 1991.
When she and her family arrived in Edmonton in March 1990, they were met at the airport by Baghdady and Margaret Third, director of the now-defunct St. Barnabas Refugee Society.
For the next 12 months, Third was involved in the lives of the Penhanis as the newcomers began to find their way around the community.
Penhani said at the April 24 gathering that she was so moved by Third's assistance and care for her family that she decided she would make a career in refugee work. She wanted to "help people just as (Third) helped me and my family."
For more information on how to sponsor or donate to the private sponsorship program, call Paulette Johnson, 424-3545.