When Stan Squires spoke to his parish priest about the possibility of sponsoring a refugee family, he had no idea the number of people who would be attracted to his cause.
Since that first conversation back in September, Mr. Squires and a small group of parishioners at St. Saviour, Orono have been joined by Anglicans from nearby towns and villages, Christians of different denominations, Muslims, social service agencies and community groups.
Supporters include the owners of the local café, dentists, clergy, migrant workers, an imam, retirees, a banker, a hedge fund manager, university students – more than 80 people from all over Trent-Durham. Even the local newspaper editors have chipped in.
“It really is a multi-faith initiative,” says Mr. Squires. “The Anglican church started it, but we now call it the Orono Community Syrian Refugee Sponsorship.”
The goal, he says, is to bring a refugee family to Orono, a village just north of the town of Newcastle off Highway 35. The group is well on its way to doing that, having raised $23,000 by the middle of December.
Mr. Squires says he has been amazed by the number of people who have offered to help. “Many of them I’ve never met before. Just last night the Rotary Club of Bowmanville phoned and said we’d like to give you $2,500. It’s been incredible.”
Mr. Squires, who has never been involved in a refugee sponsorship before, says the planning group started small. “We didn’t cast our net wide. People just kept on volunteering, so we added them to the list.”
(His parish priest, the Rev. Kevin Wong, has since moved to All Saints, Markham, where he is the interim priest-in-charge. The Rev. Canon Susan Sheen is the new interim priest-in-charge of St. Saviour, Orono. Both priests support the effort, as does the local deanery clericus.)
The initiative gained momentum in early September, when an article about it was published in the Orono Weekly Times. The group also set up a Facebook page and an online portal for donations. The rest was done by word-of-mouth.
Two of the people who read about the initiative were Dr. Nosheen Zaidi and Dr. Aleem Lalani, a husband-and-wife couple who operate a dental practice in Newcastle. “Our main reason for wanting to support this cause from the beginning was knowing first-hand what families of refugees go through and the barriers they face,” says Dr. Lalani.
Both of his parents migrated to Canada from East Africa during Idi Amin’s dictatorship in Uganda in the 1970s. “Their home, business and savings were suddenly seized by the government and they were facing persecution,” he says. At that time, the federal government made arrangements for several thousands of refugees to come to Canada.
“My parents were one of the lucky ones that were accepted into this amazing country with open arms – a land of true opportunity,” says Dr. Lalani. “If it wasn’t for this opportunity, I would have never known what it would have been like to live a life of peace and security, nor would I have had the opportunity to study and obtain the opportunity to go to university and pursue my ultimate passion – dentistry. When I look at the images of what is going on in Syria, it is truly heart-breaking. I cannot imagine living each day of my life with such fear and uncertainty. We just knew we had to help out in whatever capacity we could.”
Like many people supporting the Orono sponsorship, Dr. Lalani and Dr. Zaidi have pledged practical support as well as financial help. They will be providing free dental care to the refugee family. Others have offered to translate and to give English lessons.
Mr. Squires says he has been inspired by a quote from Archbishop Colin Johnson, who wrote in The Anglican that bringing refugees to Canada was all about building communities. Archbishop Johnson was writing about his own experience of sponsoring a family from Vietnam in the late 1970s.
“I cut that out and put it on my computer because he is right on,” says Mr. Squires. “One of the most incredible parts of this has been the friendships we’ve made with complete strangers.”
He says he has been moved to tears by some of the fundraising efforts. Desley White, a migrant farm worker from Jamaica, gave a dozen cedar and pine wreaths he had made to St. John, Bowmanville, to raise funds for refugee sponsorship. From the sale of the wreaths, the church donated $100 to Orono’s efforts. “It’s been a blessing to see the ripple effect of giving,” says the Rev. Christopher Greaves, the incumbent of St. John’s.
Mr. Squires says a nine-year-old boy makes woolen “hope dolls” and sells them for 50 cents apiece, giving the money to the cause. “The stories are amazing,” says Mr. Squires. “It’s missional work.”
He adds: “I believe that if one small congregation in a rural Ontario church can achieve this, then every church in Canada can do the same, and many are indeed doing it. Archbishop Johnson is right. Any community can do it – it’s possible.”