Canadians unite to sponsor Syrian refugees


Source: Al Jazeera

Toronto, Canada – A small, hungry crowd gathers at First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, laying out a festive potluck feast. The folding tables overflow with samosas and sushi, cookies and sweets, and salad bowls. People in line – some wearing slick business suits, others in hijabs – load up their plates while talking to their companions.

It’s December in Toronto, and the Christmas season is in full swing. But this isn’t your typical holiday party: it’s actually an official meeting of the Toronto chapter of Save a Family from Syria, a multi-faith group working to bring Syrian refugee families to Toronto and Kingston.

“People are coming together tonight to have a little bit of a celebration,” says the Rev. Shawn Newton, the minister of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. “It’s to mark that we’re actually getting somewhere, doing something together.”

For the past year, the congregation has partnered with the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) to sponsor five Syrian families to resettle in Toronto. Although this is a festive gathering, there’s a sense of urgency in the air. The group has just received some official news from the government: three refugee families will be arriving any time between now and New Years’ Day.
Across the country, Canadian citizens are sponsoring Syrian refugees and helping them resettle in Canada, under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.

Applying as “Groups of Five,” five or more private sponsors agree to provide financial support for all the refugees’ basic expenses (including housing, food and transportation), usually for one year or until the refugees become self-sufficient, whichever comes first.

It’s estimated that privately-sponsored refugees will form around 40 percent of the 25,000 refugees from Syria that the Canadian government plans to settle in by February 2016.

“There was a build-up of media around the tragedy of Syria,” says Annette Wilde, one of the leaders of Save a Family from Syria. “I’d be watching the news, and I’d have to turn it off.”

A long history of helping refugees

It’s part of the congregation’s identity to welcome in a stranger and not really be hung up on religious difference.

Reverend Newton, First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

Motivated to take action, Wilde approached the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto with a sponsorship proposal in February 2015, which got “enormous approval”. Such a positive reception wasn’t surprising – refugee sponsorship is nothing new to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.

As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the Canadian government, the church has a long history of helping refugees, from Vietnam War draft dodgers (who were temporarily housed in the Parish Hall) to those fleeing turmoil in Central America in the 1980s.

“It’s part of the congregation’s identity to welcome in a stranger and not really be hung up on religious difference,” Minister Newton says.

This time, the group has added a special twist: a focus on reuniting families.

The idea was to sponsor Syrian refugee individuals or families who are related to a Syrian Canadian family as many Syrian Canadians lack the financial means to sponsor their relatives who are living overseas in refugee camps.

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