‘You will stretch your mind more than you ever have’

Three people stand with Canadian flags in the airport
Volunteers with the St. James Cathedral and Community Refugee Committee wait for a woman and her young son at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga in 2019.
 on June 1, 2021

Group experiences challenges, joys of refugee sponsorship

They never stop – the wars, the droughts, the famines, the sectarian battles forcing millions of people to run for their lives. The U.S.-Mexico border is in the headlines as thousands of desperate individuals escape Central America. And then there’s Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Hong Kong. Hundreds of millions of the world’s most vulnerable, unwanted and despised people, abandoned as they float like flotsam and jetsam on a sea of unrest.

And then suddenly our callous demeanour cracks. The horrifying news photo of a Greek soldier carrying the limp body of a little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, with tiny shoes still on his feet that he would never gambol and run in again, jolts us to our senses. The drama of that child, needlessly drowned from a boat refused safe landing, shocks millions into awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis. This keeps happening – the surges of displaced people rising and falling, with waxing and waning Canadian awareness of their needs.

And so it has always been with the new arrivals, Canada’s geography reflecting wars and disasters: Scots driven out by the Highland Clearances ending up in Nova Scotia, Huguenots from the French Wars of Religion, and the Irish down east escaping the Potato Famine. United Empire Loyalists from the American War of Independence, Blacks fleeing slavery and discrimination, Jews in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg away from endless pogroms and the Holocaust, Finns in northern Ontario, Russians, Ukrainians, and others from the former Soviet Union in the Prairies, the Chinese and Japanese in B.C., those fleeing Partition in India, and then victims of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the American draft dodgers from the Vietnam war, the Czechs in 1968. Oh, and don’t forget Chileans and Guatemalans…

Though Canada may be a land mainly of refugees, they have not always been welcome. The most shocking example was Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s refusal to admit Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s, when he famously declared, “None is too many.” Their boat turned around and took them back to their death.

Usually we behave better than that – or sometimes we do. The modern tradition of refugee assistance really began in the late 1970s with people crammed into rickety boats across the stormy seas fleeing Southeast Asia. Anglican churches raised money and formed committees to help Boat People settle into their new home, providing practical and emotional support. An even bigger effort helped Somalis arriving with much bigger families. St. Clement, Eglinton sponsored two related Somali families – 18 people – headed by women at risk. A year later, the one surviving husband was released from jail, found his four lost children in Mogadishu and then there were 23 here, in the middle of Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution. Their welfare payments fell by a thousand dollars. After paying rent, each had about $3 a day for everything else. Dozens of volunteers helped on a regular basis.

AURA, the Anglican United Refugee Alliance, assists and guides churches co-sponsoring refugees. It matches certified UNHCR refugees with willing congregations and acts as the legal Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). Like many other committees, the St. James Cathedral and Community Refugee Committee was formed as a response to the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. In the fall of 2015, parishioners and clergy at the cathedral, like so many parishes across Canada, sprang into action. However, from the start the cathedral decided to widen the circle of volunteers beyond those who showed up on Sunday mornings. With a mix of cathedral parishioners, parishioners from around the St. James Deanery and neighbours without any previous association, the Cathedral Community Refugee Response was born, chaired by the Rev. Canon Kate Merriman.

The first tasks were bureaucratic but somehow exhilarating: learning about refugee visas and the difference between government supported and “blended” visa refugees, undergoing training by AURA staff both on settlement and cultural competency, getting police checks, establishing budgets and planning fundraisers. There were also basic functional questions to resolve, such as what would be the organizational structure of the group, what kind of refugee cases would we be comfortable supporting, and how would we communicate outside of meetings. Very few of the volunteers had undertaken refugee settlement before, and for a few months the members consulted regularly with volunteers from previous settlement teams and settled refugees themselves. In the spirit of the moment, donations came in readily from all corners, thanks to a few experienced fundraisers on the team. After months of work, the committee was ready to submit an application to AURA to support a Syrian family of two parents and up to three children.

And then everything ground to a halt. In late 2015 and early 2016, with many faith-based and secular refugee resettlement committees willing and eager to welcome new Canadians, the overburdened system struggled to process the applications of displaced people across the globe. And so the committee volunteers planned, learned, prepped, and fundraised some more as the wise staff of AURA warned us that things often went very slowly and then very, very fast. They also suggested that while many groups were specifically interested in helping Syrian families, a group open to other types of refugee cases could get to the critical work of supporting new Canadians much faster.

In the end, it did happen very fast. The committee deliberated on whether we could take on another type of refugee case, and ultimately decided yes, we would help whoever needed help. In late April 2016, Kate got the call and the committee members got an email with the subject line “AURA is offering us a case.” It was not a family but a single man, and he was not Syrian but Iranian. We had three hours to decide. We said yes, and then scrambled to adjust our plans accordingly. A year later, with temporary housing, a computer, culturally appropriate foods, and a translator all lined up, one rainy July evening, after only a short delay due to unrest in Turkey, we welcomed the newest Canadian permanent resident at Pearson airport.

That first year was a crash course in life as a newcomer, not just for him but for most of the volunteers. How do you choose between the need for income and the need to learn English? Where was the line between support and paternalism? How did anyone on such a limited budget find housing in Toronto? But for all the hardship, the rewards were unimaginable. By the time we were discussing “Month 13” – the transition to living without financial support from the committee, and how to sponsor a daughter still in Iran in coming to Canada (she would be our third case and today lives with her father) – it was hard for several volunteers not to think of this man as family.

Since 2016, the cathedral committee has sponsored a Syrian family of five, the daughter of the first man we supported, and a single mother and her young son. Fundraising has not always been as easy. We tire of disaster stories we cannot solve. Other issues take our attention.

We have come to understand that settlement does not and perhaps cannot happen in 12 months, and as trusted confidantes and people experienced with Canadian systems and institutions, we have often been asked for guidance with thorny issues well after our financial support has ended. Housing has become far more expensive in Toronto and we have despaired of slashed financial support for the resources we had turned to for everything from language classes and translators to childcare and psychological support. And nothing could have prepared us for how much worse everything became with the unique challenges of a global pandemic.

But still the rewards have been beyond imagining. We have seen the photographs of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who are now dead, squeezed a hand in support, and then looked up to see the dazzling smile of a child shouting “look at this” in newly acquired English. We have become adopted grandparents, aunties and siblings.

If you haven’t been in a sponsorship group, you’re missing one of the most enlightening, rewarding projects you can ever have. But don’t worry. The sad thing is that there will always be a need and we must be vigilant and humble. You may find racism among co-workers with the best intentions, and those with an inability to comprehend the severity of all the new residents have endured. You will stretch your mind more than you ever have, learn like you never have learned before, and make mistakes, but you will have cheered on accomplishments from first escalator rides to first jobs, helped decorate first apartments, and eaten truly stunning meals with our new friends. Our new families.

A teacher working in St. James Town in Toronto said the difference between co-sponsored refugees and government-sponsored refugees is night and day. Five times as many co-sponsored refugees find jobs than government-sponsored people. And, as one new Canadian, a Muslim woman, often would say, “I wasn’t worried. I had the Church!”


Elizabeth MacCallum and Brooke Sales-Lee are members of St. James Cathedral’s Community Refugee Committee.


Keep on reading

Skip to content