July 16, 2013
By Suzanne Rumsey
How many is 50? How far is home?
In 2009, as part of PWRDF’s 50th anniversary celebrations the Refugee Network– made up of refugee coordinators and committees in the 15 dioceses that hold Private Sponsorship Agreements with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) proposed that PWRDF take up the challenge of sponsoring 50 refugee families for settlement in Canada. A project was developed, staff hired and an agreement was negotiated with CIC that included matching seed money for those interested in sponsoring one of the 50 families.
And so they came and were welcomed… a Karen family from Burma/Myanmar sponsored by three parishes in Bells Corners (Diocese of Ottawa), a Colombian family sponsored by St. John the Evangelist in the Diocese of Edmonton, an Ethiopian family sponsored by a parish in St. Thomas (Diocese of Huron), and the list goes on. In all, 50 families totalling 158 individuals found refuge and a new home through this PWRDF initiative.
By early 2012, all but one family had arrived. But war had broken out in Syria a year before; a war that rages on, continuing to claim the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians and of refugees who had come there from Iraq, Iran and other countries in the region in the years prior to the outbreak of Syria’s war.
Canada’s embassy, including its consular services, was shut down and refugees with sponsors waiting for them in Canada were stuck. Among those who waited were Hamdan Nagie, his wife Wagiha and their son, Ahmed. Displaced by the war in Iraq years before, first to a refugee camp and then to Damascus, they waited while Hamdan and Wagiha’s daughter in Halifax and Sharon MacLeod, Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator for the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island worked feverishly to get them out.
Assistance came from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and then the UNHCR left the country as the family waited. Food, water and heat in their apartment in Damascus ran low and they waited. Bombs fell around them and they waited. Other refugees managed to leave, but still they waited terrified that they would never do so.
And then, thanks to the efforts of CIC staff in Canada, the Canadian visa office in Jordan and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), word came that it was possible to leave. On May 7 the family boarded a bus in Damascus but were immediately taken off because apparently they did not have all the required documents. Their departure was rescheduled for May 14 and this time they made it to the Syrian-Lebanese border only to be removed from the bus. Hamdan was taken away for questioning.
Time passed. The bus left for Beirut. The border closed for the night. Phone calls and e-mails between the border, Jordan and Canada ensued. And then Hamdan was released and the family continued their journey onto the Beirut airport, then Turkey and finally Canada and into the arms of their waiting daughter, her family, Sharon and the sponsorship group in Halifax. The long journey to “home” was over.
“Those last days were extremely frightening and uncertain for the family and all those trying to bring them to Canada,” Sharon noted. She praised the commitment of staff at the visa office in Jordan who worked well beyond regular office hours to secure the family’s departure from Syria. She also praised those parishes and dioceses across the country that pooled resources in order to assist the sponsorship group in Halifax with financing necessary to bring the family to Canada.
When asked to put the arrival of PWRDF’s 50th family into perspective, Sharon said simply, “More work needs to be done. More families still need to come.” On the eve of World Refugee Day (June 20), the UNHCR released its annual Global Trends report in which it stated that 45.2 million people worldwide are displaced; 28.8 million as internally displaced persons and 16.4 million as refugees.
And so PWRDF and Canadian Anglicans can be proud to say we have welcomed 158 strangers into our communities and our lives. And then we need to ask ourselves, how many is 50 and how far is home? What more are we called to do?