I was a stranger and you welcomed me

By Suzanne Rumsey

In September 2015, three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s tiny lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. The photo was a turning point in the years-long struggle of refugees escaping the civil war in Syria. In the months following, Canada opened its door and Canadians followed suit, preparing to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees. More than 40,000 refugees, both government-assisted and privately sponsored, have since arrived, seeking to call Canada home.

It is a remarkable achievement, due in no small part to the efforts of countless individuals and groups across the country who mobilized in parishes, synagogues and mosques, workplaces, community centres and neighbourhoods. For Anglicans this effort was not only an act of citizenship, but a response to the gospel imperative to “welcome the stranger.”

Even though the war in Syria has entered its seventh year and the global refugee numbers have reached levels not seen since the Second World War, the attention of most Canadians has moved on to other issues. But the quiet work of those who coordinate private refugee sponsorship through Canada’s unique program, continues.

There are currently 15 Anglican dioceses that are Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs). Each of those SAHs has a Refugee Coordinator and once a year they gather as the PWRDF Refugee Network to exchange information, network and strategize immediately prior to an annual meeting between all Canadian SAHs and the government (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada – IRCC).

The coordinators are a mix of volunteers with a few full- or part-time paid staff.  Most receive some financial support from their diocese, but some do not. All have been overwhelmed both by the numbers of sponsorships undertaken in the past two years, by the generosity of Anglicans specifically and Canadians generally, and all continue to struggle to say no to the ongoing reality that demand still exceeds capacity.

That said, as the PWRDF staff person who facilitates the Refugee Network meeting, I am annually humbled by the commitment, dedication, passion and sheer determination of those who have helped so many refugees come to Canada and helped so many Canadians to welcome them. In Edmonton in late May, we documented the numbers of refugees that have been sponsored through Anglican SAHs since that fateful moment in September 2015.

With data from 13 of the 15 SAHs gathered, we learned that 2,180 refugees have arrived in Canada and a further 1,091 were waiting to arrive as of the end of May 2017. (Those figures have since been updated to be 2,442 refugees arrived by December 2016, and 2,088 have been processed and waiting to arrive.) Many of those are Syrians, but they are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi. That is a remarkable achievement; one that we should be proud of and one for which we need to say, “thank you” to the Refugee Coordinators and those who have worked closely with them.

On June 20 we will mark World Refugee Day, a time to remember all those “strangers” who are displaced, either as refugees outside their country or as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) within their own country’s borders. Let us remember them, uphold them in prayer, and then take action to support the work both in Canada through refugee sponsorship and overseas through PWRDF’s many refugee programs.

And if you know a Refugee Coordinator in your diocese, please, give them a hug.