During the COVID-19 pandemic, home has been the safest place to be for most of us. But the pandemic hasn’t meant an end to the displacement of people worldwide; rather the opposite, as conflict and natural disasters continue to rage. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2020 there were 82.4 million people – over one per cent of the global population – forcibly displaced by reasons beyond their control. These are the highest levels of human displacement on record. Of this number, 26.4 million are refugees, people who have left their home countries out of well-founded fear of persecution. Most of them will never be able to return home. More than half of all refugees are children under 18, and over a million of them were born as refugees. For most of these people, resettlement in a new country will be their only hope of a permanent home.
Despite the growing numbers of those seeking asylum, the UNCHR also reported that “only 34,400 refugees were resettled to third countries in 2020. … This compares to 107,800 the year before and marks a dramatic 60 per cent decline – at a time when 1.4 million refugees are estimated to be in need of resettlement.”
While COVID-related border closures were partly responsible for that drop, some of it is also due to the tendency of nations, churches and individuals to focus on internal concerns during the pandemic. To an extent, this is quite natural. Yet we are called “not only to look to [our] own interests, but also those of others” (Philippians 2:4). And in Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that those who welcome the stranger are welcoming Him.
For over three decades, this diocese has partnered with the Anglican-United Refugee Alliance (AURA) in refugee resettlement. AURA and the diocese are joint Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) with the federal government. AURA staff work tirelessly to match parishes with refugee cases and to prepare parishes and volunteers for the work involved in welcoming and supporting refugees through their first year in Canada. They work to connect parishes with local family members and community groups who can help with fundraising and other forms of support, as well as navigating the labyrinth of federal regulations and paperwork on our behalf. AURA staff also represent us in meetings with other SAHs and in PWRDF’s network of Anglican SAHs, who meet regularly for mutual support and strategizing.
During the pandemic, AURA and the diocese have taken on new initiatives to raise the profile of refugee resettlement, make Anglicans aware of the growing need and support parishes involved in this work. This past spring, Bishop Andrew Asbil announced the first Refugee Sunday on May 30. AURA and diocesan staff prepared videos, factsheets and worship resources to highlight the plight of refugees and our response as a diocese. In the summer, a new Diocesan Refugee Network was formed, the brainchild of Debra Solomon and Mary Asbil of St. James Cathedral’s refugee resettlement committee. This now-monthly Zoom meeting brings together members of refugee committees from parishes across the diocese to share concerns, best practices, resources and mutual support. AURA and diocesan staff are also on hand to help answer questions.
“We see this as an opportunity to support each other and learn together,” says Ms. Solomon. “We are planning a combination of check-in meetings and speakers on topics of interest to sponsorship groups across the diocese.” Some of the topics identified so far include helping refugees find housing and employment opportunities, understanding the refugee journey, and recruiting and retaining members of refugee sponsorship committees.
Alex Hauschildt, AURA’s operations director, will also be presenting a workshop at the diocesan Outreach & Advocacy Conference on Oct. 30. Having spent the past 10 years in various roles with AURA, he is well aware of the benefits of sponsorship not only to refugees but to the parishes and communities who welcome them. “Successful refugee sponsorship is a collective effort that builds relationships and develops understanding, ultimately strengthening our communities,” he says.
Parishes’ interest in refugee sponsorship peaked in 2015-16 with the Syrian crisis. The photo of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach captured the hearts and minds of Canadians who sought a warmer welcome for Syrian refugees. More than 75 parishes were involved in refugee sponsorship in 2016, some of them for the first time.
This summer, our hearts were stirred by images of Afghanis desperate to leave their homeland in the wake of the Taliban takeover: 640 people crowded onto a U.S. military cargo plane, while others ran down airport runways desperately hoping to join them. Before the election was called, the Canadian government pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghanis. What that effort will look like is, at the time of writing, still not fully clear, but AURA staff expect to know details soon. Information will be shared at the Outreach Conference workshop, in the Diocesan Refugee Network and through other means of communication.
Something we might expect to see is a return to the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, in which the federal government contributes half the estimated costs to resettle a refugee and their family. Many of the Syrian refugees resettled in 2016 and the years following were BVOR cases. This is a good way for the diocese to increase its capacity to welcome refugees, since parishes have lower costs to bear and the number of BVOR cases referred to parishes doesn’t take away from the number of “named” cases (refugees sponsored by those who request them by name, often family members of those already arrived in Canada) we are allowed to request annually. BVOR cases also tend to move more quickly than named cases, which can take several years from application to arrival.
“Refugee sponsorship is not an emergency response,” says Mr. Hauschildt. “It takes time and patience. When you see disasters happening, the impulse is to do something right away. But refugee sponsorship doesn’t quite work that way.” Still, he says he hopes that the current Afghanistan crisis will help raise awareness of the need for refugee sponsorship and galvanize more parishes to respond when the government opens new programming.
St. James Cathedral’s refugee sponsorship group planned a walkathon in mid-October to raise funds for Afghani refugees, with Dean Stephen Vail and Bishop Andrew Asbil participating. Other parishes are also gearing up to raise funds. How might your parish be part of welcoming the stranger?
To join the mailing list for the Diocesan Refugee Network, contact Elin Goulden at [email protected]. To register for the Diocesan Outreach & Advocacy Conference on October 30, visit www.toronto.anglican.ca/outreachconference. To learn more about AURA and get involved, visit www.auraforrefugees.org.