World Refugee Day is on June 20, and this year marks 40 years of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. This program, by which private sponsors pledge to support an individual refugee or refugee family for the first year after their arrival, was unique in the world at that time, and has provided a model for the development of similar programs in other nations. It was also a major factor in the UN’s Nansen Refugee Award in 1986 being conferred upon “The People of Canada,” the only time in the award’s 65-year history that it has been awarded to an entire nation. According to the federal government, 327,000 refugees have been welcomed to Canada by private sponsors since the program began in 1979, over and above the number of refugees which have been resettled with government funding.
Canadian church groups were the first to implement the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. In April 1978, new federal immigration legislation came into force, which introduced refugees as a new class of immigrants and created the possibility for private sponsorship by any group of five Canadians willing to assume financial responsibility for the refugees for one year. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing war-torn Vietnam by boat, looking for a safe haven. Many Canadians wanted to help but were daunted by the liability the government was imposing. In March of 1979, the Mennonite Central Committee negotiated an agreement with the federal government by which it would accept liability for Mennonite church sponsors, thus becoming the first Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the federal government. Within six months, 28 national church organizations and Catholic and Anglican dioceses had signed similar agreements. Today, there are more than 100 Sponsorship Agreement Holders across Canada, which are responsible for resettling the vast majority of privately sponsored refugees. Most of these are faith groups; 14 of them are Anglican dioceses.
From Vietnam to Syria
Anglicans in our diocese have been involved with refugee sponsorship since the beginnings of the program in 1979. Retired Bishop George Elliott recalls the sponsorship of the Vu family from Vietnam through the joint efforts of St. Francis of Assisi, Meadowvale and St. Thomas à Becket, Erin Mills South, where he was an assistant curate at the time. Since 1985, refugee sponsorships by the Diocese of Toronto have been facilitated through an organization originally known as the Working Group on Refugee Resettlement, which changed its name to the Anglican-United Refugee Alliance, or AURA, in 2006.
When the Syrian refugee crisis captured the Canadian consciousness in September 2015, Canadians from all walks of life, including our diocese, responded with increased willingness to undertake refugee sponsorship. Ian McBride, AURA’s former executive director, remembers the “calls just flying in,” and his small staff working round the clock to keep up with the demand. That September, our Diocesan Council announced a $500,000 tithe from the Ministry Allocations Fund to assist parishes in enhancing their refugee sponsorship efforts. This tithe was allocated in the form of grants to 32 parishes in the diocese, 17 of which had never done a refugee sponsorship before. Twenty of the parishes were involved in either multi-parish sponsorships or partnerships with other churches, faith groups or the wider community. Between October 2015 and May 2017, some 80 parishes in our diocese were directly involved in refugee sponsorships, more than five times the involvement of preceding years. Additional parishes helped to raise funds. In a 2018 parish outreach survey, nearly two-thirds of parishes in our diocese reported current or recent involvement in refugee sponsorship, a rate of engagement for outreach activities only exceeded by participation in food bank programs.
Refugees who are sponsored through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program tend to have better outcomes than those assisted by the government. A 2016 study showed that, five years after arrival, privately-sponsored refugees were more likely to be employed and were much less likely to be dependent on food banks or social assistance. Sponsoring groups help to provide emotional and social supports for newly arrived refugees, and connect them to the wider community, all of which facilitates their integration into Canadian society.
Benefits flow both ways
As transformative as the impact of private sponsorship is for the refugees who are sponsored, the benefits do not only flow one way. Alex Hauschildt, AURA’s communications director, describes refugee sponsorship as a “shared journey” which has a “profound impact” on sponsors as well as sponsorees. Those who have been involved in refugee sponsorship in our diocese can attest to the positive impact these efforts have had upon their own congregations and the wider community.
Sponsorship has the capacity to unite a congregation around a specific and tangible project. Beyond fundraising, many hands are required once the refugees arrive: to help secure housing, provide clothing and furniture, set up bank accounts, enrol children in school and adults in ESL classes, orient the refugees to their new community, and more. Almost every member of the congregation can become a part of the effort in one way or another. Walking alongside refugees in this process can give Anglicans a fresh understanding of societal concerns such as the lack of affordable housing, the high cost of food, and the prevalence of precarious work, making them more ready to engage in broader social justice advocacy.
Sometimes sponsorship efforts bring several local parishes together, which may lead to long-term relationships between the churches. The Don Valley Refugee Resettlers, a group of Anglican and United Church congregations in north Toronto, have undertaken sponsorships together for nearly 25 years, building up a wealth of expertise. Similarly, St. Aidan, Toronto participates in efforts with other local churches through the East End Refugee Committee, a connection which has equipped those local churches to engage in other forms of shared outreach and advocacy, from Out of the Cold to hosting all-candidates meetings.
Sponsorship can build bridges not only ecumenically but between faiths as well. In 2015-16, St. Anne, Toronto engaged in a friendly competition with its Muslim neighbours at the Islamic Information and Da’wah Centre to raise funds for a joint refugee sponsorship. The mosque’s involvement helped reduce the language and cultural barriers for the sponsored refugees. Through the process, the two communities and the neighbouring City Shul synagogue came to know each other better.
Refugee sponsorship can also help build connections between the parish and the secular community. St. Matthew, Riverdale found that individuals without any church connection embraced its efforts, offering substantial donations toward its refugee sponsorship. The church’s incumbent, the Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton, said the sponsorship process “knit us together with the neighbourhood, the church community and the non-church community in ways we never expected.”
St. Saviour, Orono had a similar experience with its sponsorship of Syrian refugees. While the tiny church could not have raised the funds alone, they were able to do it through a partnership which brought together more than 300 members of the wider community, from service clubs to schoolchildren, small businesses to migrant farm workers, Christians and Muslims alike. In January of 2018, the “Orono and Community Refugee Sponsorship Committee” received the Champion of Diversity Award from the province’s Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.
Scripture comes alive
Through welcoming refugees, Anglicans find scripture coming alive for them in new ways. As Bishop Linda Nicholls noted in 2015, refugee sponsorship helps us recognize the face of Christ in the other and enables us to live out scripture’s command to welcome the stranger, while challenging our assumptions and prejudices. Bishop Jenny Andison has recounted the vividness with which the gospel story of the Syro-Phoenician woman struck the parish of St. Clement, Eglinton in early September 2015, galvanizing it to reach out to Syrian refugees. The family sponsored by that parish chose to be baptized the following Pentecost, and their baptism, in English and Arabic, brought both the rite and the Pentecost story alive for the parish in a powerful way. Lay people describe the experience of refugee resettlement as “being part of a miracle” and “the most meaningful missional experience of my life.”
Becoming involved in refugee sponsorship engages Anglicans in Canada directly in the mission of the Church. This is important for the personal spiritual growth of those involved, but also in bearing witness to the wider community. As Bishop Andrew Asbil notes, refugee sponsorship showcases the church’s mission: “People are actually interested in hearing from faith groups who are active in making their community a better place.” Through welcoming the stranger, engaging with the obstacles facing vulnerable members of our society, bringing the community together and breaking down barriers between disparate groups, refugee sponsorship helps the Church knit together the social fabric while bearing witness to the welcoming love of the Kingdom of God.