TORONTO — Since the revolt began in 2011, an estimated 4.5 million Syrians have fled their homes. In response to the nearly unparalleled refugee crisis, the Canadian government has pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. But that plan is proving perhaps too ambitious for the government’s immigration and settlement agencies to handle on their own.
Last week, CBC News reported that some government-sponsored refugees are feeling “hopeless” and isolated after spending weeks at a budget hotel in Toronto. Since their arrival, they’ve faced a lack of communication, supplies and assistance, including medical attention in some cases. With no idea of when they’ll be able to leave for more permanent housing, some have said they would have preferred to stay in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
«The settlement agencies are overwhelmed,» Virginia Johnson, one of two volunteers at the hotel, told CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning.” «There’s a huge opportunity for individuals to step up and help.»
Kate Bate, another volunteer at the hotel, expressed concern about “two classes of refugees,” one that is government-sponsored and the other that’s received independent sponsorship.
“We’ve got this nurtured, loved, family supported by 35 families, and then we’ve got 100 families supported by one or two people,» Bate told CBC, adding:
«It is the government’s problem — but I don’t think we blame the government for this. They wanted to bring people here, to get them out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. And then the plan still has to be established, but as citizens of this country, we are responsible to also be part of that process, and it’s a global citizenship issue.»
Sponsoring Syrian lives in Canada
Lifeline Syria is one of the many organizations that’s sprung up to facilitate the process of independent sponsorship. The Toronto-based community engagement initiative matches sponsorship groups with Syrian families settling in the Greater Toronto Area and works with those families throughout their first year of building new lives in the area. They select the most vulnerable refugees, many of whom don’t have family to sponsor them in Canada or are coping with an illness.
The sponsorship groups prepare for the families’ arrivals by securing family doctors and dentists, as well as translators who will assist during these appointments and on other matters of business. They set up phone and Internet accounts, and get utilities turned on. They do fundraisers and collect donations of everything from warm coats, sturdy boots and cozy socks, to bunk beds and refrigerators. They network with other groups to exchange ideas, share Arabic-language materials, and ask questions about the process.
Perhaps most importantly, they offer a built-in support community, eager to help the family they’ve sponsored integrate into all aspects of Canadian life.
Kendra Hawke, an administrator at the University of Toronto, joined a group that was organized by Jenny Davis, another mother of students at an alternative school under the Toronto School Board which includes equity, diversity and social justice, and community engagement and activism, among its core values.
“The way it works up here is that you simply have to pledge to take care of the family for one year, and away you go,” Hawke told MintPress News, adding that the group got help filling out the necessary paperwork from Lifeline Syria.
“Initially, I asked for 42 donations of $500,” Davis said. That was on Aug. 26, and 18 days later, the family had raised $27,000, the minimum amount required by the government for a private sponsorship of a family of four.
Raising the money “seemed like it would be the biggest obstacle,” Davis said, “but very early on it became apparent that it wasn’t.”
With a core group of 17, plus a host of others who were eager to pitch in, and more financial resources than were required for a family of four, the group considered sponsoring two families. But then, Davis said, “They said, Why sponsor two? Let’s do one really well!” Shortly thereafter, the group found itself sponsoring a family of 10.
At first, Davis said, “All you knew is that it was a family of 10, and the primary applicant was a dad.” Documents also listed each family member’s sex, age, language skills and years of schooling, but it would be months before the group would learn their names.
The group compiled a “wish list” that was completely fulfilled by mid-December. They gathered enough warm winter clothes, furnishings and appliances for the family of 10 to arrive and settle in quickly and comfortably upon their arrival (the family finally arrived at around 1 a.m. on Jan. 11, with no advance notice). They’d also lined up babysitters and tutors.
Meanwhile, Hawke said, the people in the sponsorship group that took the lead on housing “went out of their way to find a place that was walking distance from an Arabic community center, and all three levels of school that the children need, as well as easy access to transit.”
Davis added that the schools were chosen particularly carefully: Their locations will allow the older children to drop the younger ones off at school each morning, preventing the need for the children to navigate public transit on their own. The children in elementary school will enter an English as Second Language program. The group felt, though, that it was important for the older children to have access to schools which offer the Literacy Enrichment Academic Program, or LEAP, which is geared especially toward students aged 11-18 who were unable to attend school prior to their arrival in Canada.
The family had been in Lebanon for several years prior to their arrival in Canada. “These are the types of refugees the government is targeting right now. They have been displaced from Syria so long as to almost prove they have nothing to do with the war,” Hawke explained.
Aside from her own reactions to watching the situation in Syria unfold on the news, Hawke said sponsoring the Syrian family is an important way to teach her own sons about “how lucky we are to live here in Toronto, and to share what we can, when we can.”
“My kids are also of the age where war is used as entertainment — ‘Halo,’ ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Transformers’ movies. I want them to understand that war is responsible for entire families losing their homes and having to leave their countries,” she said.
“I am not as heavy-handed as that sounds, but just balancing the glamour that surrounds war for children with the reality is important.”