Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Refugees in Canada: How Churches Can Welcome the Stranger

Refugees in Canada: How Churches Can Welcome the Stranger
Some Canadian Evangelicals are discovering the joy and challenges of ministering to refugees. Here’s how your church can be involved

In 1999 Chantal Mukabalisa approached her pastor with a simple, desperate plea: “Help my family come to Canada.” Fleeing racial persecution in their home country of Rwanda, Mukabalisa’s family had spent two years in Zambia cut off from family, home and dignity. That was before Calvary Community Church of Windsor, Ontario, sponsored them and welcomed them to Canada.

Kosovar refugees landing at CFB Trenton.

Now, far from the terror and hopelessness that brought her and her family here, Mukabalisa says “There is a life after the death of my people.”

Mukabalisa has a message for other churches across Canada. “They hold the key to open the doors for those people living in misery who don’t know what their tomorrow will be like,” she says. “That’s what Calvary Church members did.”

The statistics surrounding the plight of refugees are staggering. According to the World Refugee Survey, there are more than 12 million refugees worldwide.

In the face of the overwhelming challenge, however, there are tangible and often simple things that Canadian churches can do to help.

Learn about the issue

Did you know that the number of Iraqi refugees alone is estimated at between one million and four million? This number includes those who have escaped to neighbouring countries or are “internally displaced” having fled their own homes.

Speak to churches or ministries that work with refugees and ask questions. Do some research and you will be better equipped to determine if your church is ready to take the next step. Start with www.evangelicalfellowship.ca (click Social Issues > Issues > Refugees). You’ll find links to a variety of other groups, chief among them the Refugee Highway. It is a global organization of Christians committed to helping refugees and mobilizing the Church to do the same. The site www.refugeehighway.net is full of resources, some even designed for children to understand the issue.

Other great starting places include the United Nations refugee agency, www.UNrefugees.org, and the Canadian Council for Refugees, www.ccrweb.ca.

Sponsor a refugee

When Dave Senko, pastor of Calvary Community Church in Windsor, responded to Mukabalisa’s request for help, he didn’t know where to start. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to find an agency that would assist him, he found World Vision Canada has a program set up to help churches wanting to sponsor refugees.

Many evangelical denominations (and others) have ministries and programs devoted to helping refugees…

World Vision is not alone. Many evangelical denominations (and others) have ministries and programs devoted to helping refugees and equipping individual congregations to do the same. A simple phone call to your denomination’s headquarters will tell you if your tradition offers something similar.

Senko quickly discovered that refugee sponsorship involves the entire church family. “It must be the heart of the church,” Senko says, “because it is a fairly large endeavour.” Sponsorship involves agreeing to provide mentorship and support, financial and otherwise, for a refugee or refugee family for a 12-month period.

It means providing them with living accommodations and all the necessities for their daily lives, right down to toothbrushes. It means transporting them to various appointments and helping them with tasks some may take for granted, such as opening a bank account or figuring out how to operate household appliances.

Although it varies from place to place across the country, and depending on whether churches purchase all of the basic needs or provide in-kind items, churches can expect to spend about $15,000 to sponsor a couple or $20,000 to $25,000 for a family.

If you can’t sponsor, consider...

Many churches, while wishing to extend a hand of love and support to Canada’s most vulnerable newcomers, may find the financial commitment involved with full sponsorship too much to assume. But they can still get involved by way of a Joint Assistance Sponsorship in partnership with the Canadian government. The government seeks groups to enter mentoring relationships with families or individuals who need assistance beyond the initial year of sponsorship. The family is already here and needs help getting settled.

This extra care may be required for a number of reasons, from trauma due to violence or torture to medical disabilities. Ministries reaching out to refugees may also need help with things like household items, good quality used clothing or volunteers to help at their centre. Ask what is needed and see if your church can fill the gap. You can find out more at www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/sponsor/jas.asp.

It’s about community

At Mount Royal Mennonite Church in Saskatoon, Pastor Jack Dyck and his congregation heard about a group of Colombian refugees heading to Canada under government assistance. The congregation set about to welcome the new Canadians with a large reception and has continued to find ways to meet the needs of their newest neighbours by teaching English and even finding their own pastor – a Spanish-speaking pastor from Colombia who has served as a go-between to educate both the Colombians and the Canadians about language and cultural differences.

…privately sponsored refugees find work more quickly and have less difficulty adjusting…

Though government programs provide the essentials for refugees and have established systems for meeting their other needs, studies show that privately sponsored refugees find work more quickly and have less difficulty adjusting to Canadian culture because of the loving community that receives them.

Churches can work to provide the same warmth for government-assisted refugees and can connect with them by consulting the agencies currently working with them. (See http://cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/welcome/wel-20e.asp for a list of agencies.)

By far the largest group of refugees arriving in Canada each year are refugee claimants. These are the “unofficial” refugees who make their claims for refugee status once they have set foot on Canadian soil. There are fewer support systems in place for them.

Matthew House, one of two Toronto reception houses for refugee claimants established by the Convention Baptists, is one place where these refugees receive a loving welcome.

Anne Woolger-Bell, director of Matthew House, says her vision is for more centres across Canada. “We can house 12 people at a time here,” she says, “but I turn away an average of one person a day. That means I help only a quarter of the people who come to our doors.” These people, in a strange place for the first time, have often traded their life savings for a chance to get to Canada. They typically have nowhere else to go but the city’s homeless shelters.

Until more Christian reception houses can be opened, Woolger-Bell has an innovative plan. “If church members even wanted to open up a bedroom in their houses, we could refer refugees to them and they could each have one refugee staying in their home.”

It’s about being a friend

Stewart Coutts marvels at the new Karin family freshly arrived from Thailand through sponsorship by the Alliance church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where he serves as assistant pastor. Upon arriving in the new townhouse rented for his family by the church, the grandfather asked two important questions: “May we come and go as we please?” and “Will we have to leave this place?”

In the end, what refugees to Canada may need most is what Canadian Evangelicals can supply in abundance: friendship.

Carey Clark is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2007.

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