Churches’ Refugee Sponsorship Builds Stronger Communities

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After a Sunday service in March, an extra buzz of excitement could be felt in the hall of St. Andrew’s, Cobourg, Ont. After months of fundraising, volunteering and praying, the congregation was meeting a family of four Syrian refugees they helped bring to the area for the first time.

Congregation members took turns greeting the family, shaking their hands and welcoming them to Canada. A smartphone app enabled translation between English and Arabic so people could converse with the Syrian parents. The family was welcomed with cake, gifts, and cards made by the Sunday school children.

John McDougall, a member of the church and sponsorship team who hosted the Syrian family at his home for their first six weeks in Canada, notes the church reception as a memorable experience.

“[The Syrian family] and everybody in the church seemed so comfortable and truly glad to see them,” McDougall says. “It was just a very friendly, upbeat kind of greeting.”

St. Andrew’s is one of 10 Northumberland County-based churches that are collaborating to bring up to seven Syrian refugee families to the area. Called the Better Together Refugee Sponsorship, the collective has several community organizations involved and more than 100 volunteers.

BTRS formed when three individuals independently expressed to their church leaders a desire to help in the refugee crisis. Through a ministerial support group meeting, several of the church leaders discussed creating a unified effort. There are two co-coordinators, several overarching committees and a core team for each sponsored family.

Rev. Neil Ellis notes several reasons it made sense for St. Andrew’s to join BTRS. “The unique opportunity to work with other churches outside of the denomination on a project of this size was appealing because suddenly the church community grows together and gets to know each other a little bit better,” Ellis says. The scale of the project and being able to pool resources was also beneficial.

In January, BTRS church leaders participated in a pulpit exchange. The churches also collaborated on an area-wide Good Friday service, creating another opportunity to share about BTRS with the wider community and work on something together.

The sponsored families are financially supported by BTRS for their first year in Canada. With the pre-planning and then continuous involvement, Ellis notes BTRS is an effort that will last from 18-24 months. The ties between the churches involved will be strengthened as they support each other and the work being done, he adds.

When the photo of Alan Kurdi, a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy, made global headlines in September, the mentality of people changed, says Matt Foxall.

“My inbox and my phone started blowing up after that photo,” says Foxall, outreach team chair and leader of the sponsorship team at Knox, Oakville, Ont. People were asking: “What’s Knox going to do about this?”

As part of their response, Knox sponsored a Syrian refugee family of six. What started as a few people asking what could be done has blossomed into a team of about 25 people who are involved in the resettlement and sponsorship process.

Many of the team members are younger families who joined the church within the last eight years. There are also some people from the Oakville community who learned about the project and wanted to get involved. Some offer translation services, while one family delayed the sale of their home and offered it at a reduced rental rate, giving the sponsored family a place to live while looking for something permanent.

In addition to drawing in the local community, a fellow church in the presbytery—Glenbrook Presbyterian in Mississauga—wanted to get involved. One member left a substantial donation in Knox’s offering plate, another is a former resettlement officer who shared wisdom, and members stocked the refugee family’s pantry with Middle Eastern foods.

When needs have arisen, someone has been able to look after it. For example, when a discussion about health care for the family arose, an adherent and team member shared that she is a local family physician.

“It’s been an amazing experience seeing the community rally around not just Knox, but around the family and everything else,” Foxall says. “This is Knox just being a beacon of light within the community to say this is something that we want you to be part of, you don’t have to be a member of Knox to do that.”

St. Andrew’s, Owen Sound, Ont., is sensing a movement afoot with partnerships and momentum building around refugee sponsorship in the Grey Bruce region. Last September, after the church’s session approved a committee to explore how to respond to the refugee crisis, Rev. Dana Benson hosted a community information session on Canada’s refugee system and how to sponsor refugees. Through word-of-mouth and one week of notice, approximately 50 people attended from the Grey Bruce community and various faith groups.

In the following months, 15 sponsorship groups formed out of that initial meeting, ranging from different faith groups to community members. For example, one group is a partnership between the Muslim association and a couple of United churches.

“There’s been this whole community regional movement that has burst out from this, which has been so exciting,” Benson says.

Now referred to as the Grey Bruce Newcomers Network, Benson coordinates monthly meetings where information is shared amongst the sponsoring groups. Topics such as how to make an application, how to coordinate volunteers, and the resettlement process—with workshops on navigating the education system, supporting English as a second language, and health care—have been discussed.

The initiative has opened up new possibilities for the church and wider region. There is an opportunity to build a community of collaboration, says Benson, noting that in many regions most groups tended to work in isolation causing a fragmented way of building community.

“As a result of this we have been building bridges and opening the door for collaboration that just wasn’t there before,” she says. “People are realizing that they don’t necessarily need to protect their territory as fervently as they did and that we can achieve much better results if we work together.”

The Grey Bruce community has a unique farming and rural culture, but has struggled with a lack of diversity and declining population. An influx of newcomers—Benson estimates the 15 sponsoring groups will bring about 75 refugees in—will create a shifting of cultural attitudes and what it means to be a welcoming community.

“It’s going to change the face of Grey Bruce, and not everybody is on board with that. But the vast majority, I think, of the people are.”

St. Andrew’s chose to sponsor an Eritrean refugee family. Within a day of the family’s arrival, Benson took her son and his friend to visit the family and give them a soccer ball.

When she arrived at their apartment, the door was wide open, all lights were on, and no one was around. She found them upstairs at another Eritrean family’s apartment and was enthusiastically welcomed. Two of the girls were riding their tricycles in the hallway, while the boys, who were watching Ethiopian television on a laptop, gave up their seats to Benson’s son and his friend. There were a mixture of Muslims and Christians present, and four different languages.

“I thought to myself, this is church. What we are doing here is forging a way of being the kingdom in the midst of this community. It was so powerful,”

Benson says. “They just opened themselves all the way to us and we felt embraced. Here we thought we were embracing them and we were embraced by them.” To learn more about these projects, visit: • bettertogetherpartnership.orgknoxoakville.com/refugee-sponsorshiprefugeesowensound.org

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About Jennifer Neutel

Jennifer Neutel is a member of St. Andrew’s, Cobourg, Ont.