It started with a knock on the door during a blizzard. One evening in December 2018, the Rev. Matthew McMillan, incumbent of St. Mary, Richmond Hill, was sitting alone in the church lobby in case someone had missed the email cancelling that night’s scheduled meeting. “It was just a night where, in the middle of a snowstorm, Ibrahim came walking up to the church door and knocked on it,” he says. “It was just fortuitous. God led the encounter.”
As it turned out, Ibrahim needed a church to help him with a refugee sponsorship application and had already been in touch with AURA, the Anglican United Refugee Alliance. AURA had referred him to St. Mary’s because it was near to where he lived.
Ibrahim, a medical doctor in Afghanistan, had come to Canada with his daughter a decade earlier. He was hoping St. Mary’s could help him sponsor more family members. “We immediately said yes,” says Mr. McMillan. “It wasn’t even a thought about whether or not we should; it was ‘Can we do this? How can we make this happen? What can we do?’”
The family in question, a married couple, three teenage children and their grandmother, fled Afghanistan as the Taliban began to encroach further into the country. They’ve been living in Tajikistan for several years. “They were warned by other Afghans that were saying the Taliban are coming, they’re going to take everything you have, you’d better flee. So the family sold their business and luckily just got out in time,” says Mr. McMillan. As members of the minority Hazara ethnic group and Shi’a Muslims, they would have faced persecution by the Taliban, which has carried out ethnic massacres against Hazaras in the past.
The parish raised money, gathered household goods and tackled the logistical details involved in sponsorship. Ibrahim and Hazara Afghans already in Canada also raised funds to support this family and other Hazara refugees. Meanwhile, AURA staff helped everyone keep track of the tasks that needed to happen. “They really fill in the gaps and cover the blind spots for parishes,” says Mr. McMillan. “There’s this collaboration on so many levels that the parish may not fully realize until they’re knee deep into the process.”
Though St. Mary’s anticipated the family’s arrival in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the biggest challenge, with immigration offices shutting down and travel restrictions being put in place. “The family has been remarkably patient and so thankful, and very gracious at every turn,” says Mr. McMillan. “Being in a refugee position in a foreign country where there’s limited to no funds and you’re wondering how you’re going to make it from one day to the next, let alone get out of the country – it’s not easy.”
Finally, the six family members arrived safely in Canada on Oct. 14 after a 20-hour flight from Tajikistan, entering a two-week quarantine under Canada’s COVID-19 protocols. Now, the team from St. Mary’s is helping them access schooling, English language support and medical attention, as well as providing friendship. “We become that immediate community that supports them and becomes their extended family by virtue of walking with them,” says Mr. McMillan.
Though the sponsorship process has demanded time, energy and a lot of patience, Mr. McMillan says he’s also seen some renewed engagement among members of the parish community. “When the meat of the gospel presents itself before them and they can do kindness, show mercy and give aid to those who are in desperate situations, it feels like we’ve reconnected with what God’s purposes are for us as creatures of God,” he says. “Refugee sponsorship is the love that Christ speaks of, where both the giver and the recipient are mutually filled through the exchange.”
With this family safe on Canadian soil, the team at St. Mary’s is going to work with Ibrahim to sponsor more members of his family who left Afghanistan and are living in Malaysia. They’re also waiting to hear about two sisters who went into hiding when the Taliban regained power and are trying to escape to Pakistan through the mountains.
However the next steps unfold for Ibrahim and St. Mary’s, and despite the occasional frustrations in the process, Mr. McMillan says helping refugees find safety has been a rewarding experience. “We felt that God was calling us to do this,” he says. “It was very much just us in the midst of everyday life, but willing to answer the door when someone knocked.”