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Twenty-five years of sponsoring hope

By Donna Sinclair

When St. John's United in Thompson, Man., sponsored a Laotian refugee family in the early 1980s, kindergarten teacher Doreen Lindquist was a big help. With no language in common, "we just managed to let our wishes be known to each other," she says. "We taught the children words as we went along. See an object, give it a name."

In 1999, an extended family of 24 Muslim refugees from Kosovo arrived in the northern mining town, again sponsored by St. John's. Lindquist, now retired, spent three hours a day giving them language skills, "beginning with the names of things, and working up to whole phrases."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of private refugee sponsorship in Canada. "We are unique," says Heather Macdonald, who staffs the United Church's refugee desk. The tremendous response of the 1980s created a system that "no other country has, where private citizens take on hands-on responsibility." To mark the anniversary, the United Church is looking for congregations to sponsor 25 refugee families in a joint United Church-federal government venture.

That's because United churches are extremely good at this. In the two and a half decades since thousands of Vietnamese and Laotians fled the aftermath of war, about 1,000 congregations -- one-third of the denomination -- have been involved with refugee sponsorship. Southeast Asians were followed by waves of asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala, Somalia and Ethiopia, the Congo, Eritrea, Kosovo -- everywhere that uprooted people were at risk.

Church members learned a great deal.

At St. John's United, and in all those hundreds of congregations whose members dredged up furniture and filled out papers and chatted -- knowing the words were less important than the warmth -- they had a crash course in human rights, or lack of them, around the world. They learned about the importance of human contact when you are lonely and scared, and a lot about belief.

"You are called to act out your faith," says Lindquist. That isn't always easy. Neither sponsorship nor refugee status turns people into saints, and cultural barriers don't always crumble gently. But "if you are asked to do this, you just do it," says Lindquist. "It's Jesus' teachings, really."

For most of those years, says Heather Macdonald "we were amazingly involved." But the number of sponsoring congregations has dropped. During the early waves of refugee arrivals "it was several hundred a year. Now it's 30 or 40."

That's because the refugee crisis has gone on for a long time, and "it's not novel any more," she says. Perhaps years of numbing segments on the nightly news have led us to "accept the world as a terrible place."

But the stronger reason may be even bleaker than that. Subtly, slowly, over the last 15 years, Macdonald says, refugees have come to be falsely associated in people's minds with criminals and terrorists, culminating in the terrible events of Sept.11, 2001. Terrorists don't attempt to come in as asylum-seekers, she says. There is such tight screening of refugees, it would "not be a preferred entry. It's much easier to come as a student, a visitor, even clergy."

And the world has changed drastically, symbolized by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "People used to flee Communist countries," she says, their escape a source of propaganda in the Cold War. With leaving easier, most countries "now have tighter entrance controls."

That control takes many forms. Smaller staffs at Canadian consulates means slower processing of refugee claims. Refugees no longer are processed in large groups, but one individual at a time. A refugee can no longer appear at a Canadian Embassy and hope for admission -- they simply will not be allowed to enter the building. And because "many Canadians have met refugees with family members abroad," they are naming the specific person they want to bring in. "If they said, we'll help anyone," Macdonald says, "that would cut the wait."

The end result is a waiting period of about three years from sponsorship application to arrival in Canada, which dampens the sense of urgency that fed the powerful efforts of the 1980s.

And there are more refugees now than there were 25 years ago. When Macdonald took a group of United Church young adults to Kenya three years ago, they saw 80,000 in the Kakuma refugee camp, with 800 more arriving monthly from Sudan. "We are starting to group people (in camps) around the world," she says. The U.N. estimates the refugee tide at 17.1 million.

The enormity of the task is no excuse for giving up. Sponsoring "those few hundred, they keep you alive to the millions. You start with the one in front of you."

That's what they did at St. John's United in Thompson. Bukerije Vlahna, one of those 24 Muslims who arrived in Thompson from Kosovo over five years ago, says that when she first arrived, she "used to stay home with the baby," and she was so lonely, she was" just in tears every day." But Lindquist came with her books, and soon Vlahna had words, friends and a job. Now her oldest is in university and her youngest, the baby, is in Grade One. Her English is remarkable (although she admits the children sometimes correct her.) The Vlahnas received their citizenship on Nov. 17. "It's good when they give their heart," Vlahna says about the St. John's congregation. "They give love, and they visit and talk. Lots of visits." The difference in religion doesn't matter. "We are all the same creation."

It's the human touch offered by the churches, says Macdonald, who once worked for the Department of Immigration. "The families with government sponsorship were so lonely." Private sponsorship by churches "is a good model. And you find yourself filled with life; it brings life to congregations."

She remembers her grandfather maintaining the Highland tradition of an empty chair at the table "for the Stranger." That's a clue to what sponsorship -- Buddhists from Southeast Asia or Muslims from Ethiopia -- means: "It was a Christ figure you were welcoming. You were finding God, in yourself and in them."

With files from Mike Milne

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