The image of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, washed up on a Turkish shore, has galvanized outpourings of grief around the world and led many to ask why more isn’t being done to help vulnerable refugees.
The answer, according to those actively engaged in refugee work, is simple: it hasn’t been a priority.
“If the government wanted to put the resources into it, we could process refugees more quickly. The government is not willing to do so,” said Ian McBride, executive director of the Anglican United Church Refugee Agency (AURA), an ecumenical agency that facilitates refugee resettlement in the Toronto area. “In the last decade or so, there have been-to put it mildly-no increases in government expenditures related to this.”
McBride stressed that it is not just the government that is to blame. While his organization constantly receives requests from Canadian relatives of refugees overseas, they are limited by what individuals and parishes are willing to do. “In order to help, I need the involvement of a parish…I need a parish that is willing to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to raise the money and bring these folks in.‘ I never have enough parishes.”
But there has been renewed interest in refugees following Kurdi’s death. McBride said he spent the entire Labour Day weekend answering phone calls from people and parishes who wanted to help. While he was quick to point out that parishes throughout the city have shown their long-term commitment to refugee work, he also noted that there are “people calling me who six months ago wouldn’t take my call.”
The Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministry at the diocese of Niagara, told a similar story. His diocese has been actively advertising its refugee sponsorship program all year, but he has received a huge number of inquiries about the diocese’s refugee sponsorship initiative only in the last week, both from the secular media and from parishioners.
“I think folks were moved, myself included, by that awful image [last] week, and want to be able to respond,” he said. “That image has captured the hearts and minds of folks about the refugee crisis in a way that [it] hadn’t previously garnered attention in our communities.”
The humanizing power of the image-a boy who looks like he could have been one’s own child or relative-has given many around the world a sudden feeling of connection to a staggeringly large and complicated crisis.
McBride, who has been working with refugees for a long time, is aware of how powerful such moments are, but he has no illusions about how quickly public attention can shift.
“The whole world is focused on this event-and of course, it’s chilling-but there’s an ebb and flow to this,” he said, noting that interest will likely dissipate over time. “My job is to maximize it at the moment, to achieve funding for AURA and to achieve sponsorships and life-changing activities for parishes and refugees.”
One parish that began working with AURA last year is St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Riverdale, in the diocese of Toronto, whose parishioners were convinced that they needed to sponsor a Syrian family after hearing the Rev. Nadim Nassar and Canon Andrew White (the “Vicar of Baghdad”) speak about the persecution faced by Christians in the Middle East, following the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The church formed a small group to look into the possibility of sponsorship and, with the help of AURA, began raising money to help a Syrian family.
“We’re a small church-we have only 60 people on our parish list,” said the Rev. Catherine Sider-Hamilton, associate priest at St. Matthew’s, “but in one year, we have raised $27,000.”
Sider-Hamilton said people in the parish and community have given enthusiastically, and that some of the money came from quite surprising places-for example, a neighbourhood family who wandered in to a fundraising concert one afternoon.
“When they heard what it was for, they gave $500 on the spot,” she said. “They’re not even Anglican. I don’t think they’re affiliated with any church.”
When asked why this cause struck a chord with her congregation, Sider-Hamilton said she thought it might have something to do with the number of young children in the parish. “We were touched by the pictures of children, in particular,” she said, adding that the parish’s children have also been involved in fundraising through selling crafts.
St. Matthew’s began its application to sponsor a refugee family in April, through what is called a blended visa office-referred case, and had it approved shortly after. This kind of refugee sponsorship allows Canadian individuals and organizations working with sponsorship agreement holders (14 dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada hold such agreements) and the Canadian government to bring into Canada families who have been designated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as people in need of asylum.
Because this process is dependent on many factors-not least of which, the resources the government is willing to put into processing the refugees-it can take anywhere from a few months to several years for a family to arrive in Canada.
“Now we’re just waiting, and we wish that the process was happening more quickly,” Sider-Hamilton said. “The government process of admitting refugees is quite slow.”
Blended visa office-referred cases are not the only way refugees come to Canada. There are also government-assisted refugees, whose costs are fully covered by Canada, and what are called “named cases,” where Canadians can apply to sponsor a specific refugee or family of refugees.
This is the process being used by the Anglican diocese of Qu’Appelle to sponsor the family of Saeed Abbo, an Assyrian Christian from northern Iraq.
Saeed’s story embodies the complex forces that drive people to leave their homes and seek safety abroad. It begins almost five years ago, when his daughter Marleen and her husband, Safaa Mousa, and their daughter Majdleena, fled to a Syrian refugee camp. Safaa had been working as a chef for an important government dignitary in Baghdad when a note was slipped under his door, telling him that he and his wife had 24 hours to leave Baghdad or they would be killed. They hid out in Mosul, Marleen’s hometown, while they got their papers in order and then escaped across the border into Syria, which had not yet descended into civil war.
From there, they came to Canada as office-referred refugees who were then sponsored by the diocese.
“It was difficult [to adjust to Canada], but it’s very safe for my husband and for my girl,” said Marleen. She found the parishioners at St. James’ Anglican Church in Regina to be “wonderful people,” and with their help, her husband was able to find work as a cleaner while the family set about learning English.
Meanwhile, the rise of ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq had put the rest of her family-her father, Saeed, her brother Amjed, sister-in-law Rawan and her brother’s children, Sareta and Saemn, in great danger. Amjed, who served his church as a deacon, was threatened by an ISIS militia and decided to go north with his family to Turkey.
The diocese of Qu’Appelle began raising money to reunite the Abbo family in Canada, and, when they had sufficient funds, they submitted an application to sponsor Saeed, Amjed, Rawan, Sareta and Saemn as named refugees.
Ralph Paragg, refugee co-ordinator for the diocese, said he has been quite pleased with how smoothly the process has gone.
“They were interviewed on July 14 in Ankara [Turkey], and then they had the medical exam…We are quite hopeful that they will be getting the official word very soon.”
The interview and medical exam are key steps in the admittance process, and Paragg said he expects to get a definite answer “before the snow starts to blow in Saskatchewan.”
The diocese of Qu’Appelle-which is responsible for taking care of the family for their first year in Canada-is busily raising money to cover the cost of the family’s relocation and settlement.
Meanwhile, in the diocese of Niagara, where a special initiative to sponsor 50 refugees in 2015 was launched to celebrate the diocese’s 140th anniversary, Mous noted that many churches and individuals have already contributed generously and others are “ramping up for some fall activities around fundraising.”
For every hopeful story like that of the Abbos, dozens of families remain in camps throughout the Middle East and other conflict zones.
In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner on refugees reported that the number of displaced persons worldwide had, for the first time since the Second World War, exceeded 50 million. An estimated four million Syrians have fled their country, with a further 7.5 million internally displaced.