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Members of the P.E.I. Syrian community await the arrival of Syrian refugees at the Charlottetown airport in September 2015. Photo by CBC Licensing

Achievements and challenges

Last year, more than 35,000 Syrian refugees — many United Church-sponsored — began their adjustment to life in Canada. The Observer checks in on their progress.

By Colin Maclean

In the basement of Trinity United in Summerside, P.E.I., a multi-purpose room is filled with used clothing donated by the community. The items were part of the initial wave of goodwill that preceded the expected arrival of refugees from Syria early last year.

Winter jackets, pants, shoes, shirts — all were lovingly washed by the congregation and its partners in the Syria to Summerside refugee sponsorship group, and are displayed on neat racks and shelves in the snug basement room. Another room down the hall is packed with restored or repurposed furniture.

Syria to Summerside, a multi-denominational volunteer group, was formed in late 2015. Like so many other such groups across Canada established at that time and since, most of the members had no experience working with refugees and had never been part of a private sponsorship group. They just wanted to do something, anything, to help people escape the hell that was, and still is, the Syrian civil war.

On the Island, fundraising to help neighbours is practically a local custom, so it only took a month for the Syria to Summerside group to double its original fundraising goal of $30,000. What to do with the extra money? They applied for a second family.

In the interim, the Rishas, a family of six, arrived last February, benefiting from the Liberal government’s promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of that month.

It’s been about a year since the Rishas and thousands of other Syrian families found refuge in Canada and began the long and often difficult process of adjusting to a new country, language and culture. According to the federal government, 35,147 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada between January and November 2016. Most arrived through direct government sponsorship, about a third were privately sponsored, like the Rishas, and the rest were blended visa office-referred refugees.

United Church-affiliated groups have played a big part in contributing to national private sponsorship numbers. “It’s been a busy year,” Khwaka Kukubo, the General Council’s refugee program adviser, comments in an email. While she didn’t yet know exactly how many United Church-sponsored Syrians have arrived in Canada, she reports that between September 2015 and mid-October 2016, her office received 751 applications from potential sponsors, representing the intention to resettle about 2,250 Syrians.

“So far, things are going as normally as possible in the refugee sponsorship world,” she writes. “There has been an almost 900 percent increase in sponsorship and an even bigger percentage (increase) of interest in sponsoring all refugee populations.”

Karen Scott, volunteer co-chair of the refugee sponsorship committee at Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto, was one such interested person. The church often hosts “lunch and learn” gatherings, and one such meeting, in April 2015, focused on refugee resettlement.

After that event, Scott says, there was a real sense from those in attendance that they wanted to do more than simply go home and get on with their lives. A few of them formed what is now the church’s sponsorship committee.

“It was really a small group of passionate people who wanted to pursue it,” says Scott, an IT program manager.

Metropolitan United has sponsored a Syrian family of seven, two parents and five children, who arrived about a year ago. Scott says the family is settling in well and taking advantage of the range of services offered to newcomers in Toronto.

The sponsorship group is now thinking about sponsoring a second refugee family.

Though that decision might not come for some time, Scott says she “wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where we’re heading. We’ve all been really transformed by the whole journey. We feel blessed to have had the chance to sponsor the family and get to know them. They’re an extension of our church family now.”

Back in Summerside, the Rishas are also settling in. But the likelihood of a second family arriving through the Syria to Summerside group is diminishing.  

After the Liberal government fulfilled its promise of resettling 25,000 Syrians, the extra staff put in place to handle the influx was cut back again, creating lengthy waits that are more the norm in refugee work.

Last May and June, more than 40 additional dedicated staff rejoined Canada’s visa offices in the Middle East to help ease some of the backlog. The government’s intention was to process everyone who made a private sponsorship application prior to March 31, 2016, by early in 2017.

More than 15,600 applications for privately sponsored refugees are waiting to be processed, though it’s unclear exactly how many of those are specifically for Syrians.

Rev. Andrew Richardson, minister of Trinity United and chair of Syria to Summerside, said they had been waiting for months for word on a second family with whom they had been paired, only to be informed this past September that the family would not be coming to Canada.

“We don’t get any details on that,” says Richardson. “It could be health, security, just they’ve decided not to come or they’re going to Australia. We don’t know.” Richardson’s group was offered another family, who would likely be further along in the system than the one they lost.

Richardson says the Syria to Summerside group must now decide whether it has the time and energy to take on a second family. Money isn’t an issue as the church and its partners collected enough to support two families for the required year. But the challenges of supporting one refugee family in a small city with few resources dedicated to resettlement has Richardson and his group debating whether they should drop their application for a second family and concentrate their efforts on the Rishas.

As of November, the church was still trying to decide what to do next. “Are people going to step up?” asks Richardson. “And if they are, they need to know that the crew working intimately with the Rishas is not going to help them — it’s too much.”

In the meantime, the clothing collected in the church basement has been put to good use. Whenever a community member, refugee or not, needs a new set of clothes or a warmer jacket, they can get them at the church.

They’ll be there, for as long as they’re needed.

Colin MacLean is a journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.

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