When St. Andrew’s, Kitchener, Ont., was paired with a refugee family in January, they were told the family would arrive within three days to a week. “We’d been told that all the medical and security checks were done, and they were simply waiting for travel,” Rev. Mark Lewis said. Almost six months later, they are still waiting; and they are not the only ones.
Many churches sponsoring refugee families have found themselves in a similar situation, being advised on the imminent arrival of the family and then waiting months longer than expected.
These sponsored families are part of the Blended Visa Office-Referred program. In cases like these, refugee families are chosen for resettlement and screened by the United Nations’ refugee agency, and then paired with sponsors in Canada. The Government of Canada provides six months of support for the refugees, and the sponsoring group provides financial support for the other six months, as well as assistance for the newcomers as they settle into their new communities. Since most of the screening has already been completed by the time the refugees are paired up with a sponsor, they can be ready to leave for Canada almost immediately.
Because of the expectation of refugee families’ quick arrival, many congregations started making arrangements right away. “We rented and furnished an apartment for the family, but it’s still sitting empty at this point, and a significant portion of the funds we raised are being squandered going into the rent,” Lewis said. He estimates that they’ve spent about $8,000 on rent—money that he said could be better spent actually helping the family.
“In Barrie, because the housing market is so tight we wanted to get an apartment for the family right away, so we could be sure they had one,” said Laurie Watts, a member of the refugee sponsorship committee from St. Andrew’s, Barrie, Ont. “We’re afraid that if we give up [the apartment we found], we won’t be able to find another one in time when we receive word they’re arriving.”
According to Ruth Millar, who has worked on a settlement council for 20 years, and is the head of the refugee sponsorship committee at St. Andrew’s, Barrie, the problem isn’t necessarily that someone is doing something wrong. “What you have to understand is that there’s nothing fast about immigration. But we need to have better communication about this, and better understanding of wait times.”
Since meeting its goal of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February, the government has slowed its processing rate and has removed the priority it placed on Syrian cases. Levels of overseas staff, which were boosted temporarily to help the government meet its goal, have returned to regular levels. While it isn’t clear yet if that will affect wait times for refugees already screened, it does create frustration with the groups waiting.
“We were really excited, this is an incredible opportunity to put God’s love into action, and we just keep waiting,” Watt said.
“We just want them to arrive so we can help them get on with their lives.”