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“These are people.” PWRDF supports refugee coordinators in challenging work

Diocesan Refugee Coordinators gather as the PWRDF Refugee Network in Calgary, Alta. Front row (left to right): Sarah Cooper (NS/PEI), Ralph Paragg (Qu’Appelle), Marlene Smith (Rupert’s Land), Ishita Ghose (Ottawa), Rev. Erin Phillips (Calgary), Jane Townshend (Huron). Back row (left to right): Jibril Mohamed (Islands & Inlets), Alex Hauschildt (Toronto), Grant Hanna (Calgary), Sue Kershaw (Kootenay), Ian Van Haren (Montreal), Ven. Bill Mous (Niagara), Sarah Kemp (Edmonton), Mimi Merrill (Ontario), Joanne Lavergne (Calgary), Sophia Berumen (Calgary)

November 29, 2023

By Suzanne Rumsey

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The numbers are overwhelming, and every day they become more so: 110 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide in early 2023, the greatest number in history. More than 2 million people are in need of permanent resettlement around the world. In 2022, Canada received approximately 75,000 refugees, and of those, 847 were welcomed by Anglicans through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program.

They came from countries whose names dominate the headlines: Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan (the latter part of a campaign since the Taliban took over in 2021); Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen were also common countries of origin. Ukrainian refugees settled around Winnipeg, but most other countries were evenly spread across Canada.

In the face of the global refugee crisis, it is, at first glance, a drop in the bucket. Dig deeper though, and one finds not just numbers, but lives transformed – and not just the refugees’ lives, but the lives of those who work hard and long hours to welcome them.  

How does this happen? Fifteen dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada hold Private Sponsorship Agreements with the federal Ministry of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). In each diocese, known as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), there is a person or committee tasked with acting as the Refugee Coordinator. That person or group coordinates all the administrative and program work that goes into enabling parishes, families and others to undertake a private sponsorship of an individual or family for their first year in Canada.

In early November, the PWRDF Refugee Network, made up of those diocesan Refugee Coordinators, met in Calgary for the first time since before the pandemic. They brought with them numbers, but more importantly they brought to the discussion their passion and compassion for refugees because, as one coordinator said, “These are people.”

The Refugee Coordinators are a mix of paid staff and volunteers. Some have other full-time jobs, but all of them work overtime. Many have come to the work through their commitment to both their faith and to refugees. Jibril Mohamed, coordinator of the Diocese of Islands and Inlets (formerly the Diocese of British Columbia), draws on his own experience as a refugee. As Jane Townshend from the Diocese of Huron said, “This is my ministry.” Indeed, this is a vital ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada, one that the coordinators agreed needs ongoing support and prayers from Anglicans.

There are more than 130 SAHs in Canada, both faith-based and secular. The PWRDF Refugee Network gathered before a series of meetings with other SAHs and with IRCC representatives. They reconnected with each other, prayed and discussed the successes and challenges of refugee sponsorship, and strategized about the issues that were to be discussed in the coming days. While PWRDF is not itself an SAH, it supports this group of refugee coordinators through its public engagement program, a sign of its commitment to refugee work that extends back to its formation in 1959, and to the establishment of the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program in Canada in the wake of the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis in 1978.

Among the current challenges is the new Program Integrity Framework (PIF), introduced by IRCC to address concerns about the way some SAHs had been undertaking this sponsorship work. The PIF has been a mixed blessing, helping to bring clarity and accountability where it was needed. But it has also added administrative, audit and other requirements that have been challenging for some SAHs to meet. “The increased professionalization since the [2015] Syrian refugee wave, as exemplified by the PIF, is something the church has not caught up to,” said the Ven. Bill Mous from the Diocese of Niagara. Given the new requirements, the Diocese of Islands and Inlets has taken the decision to wind down its PSR program by 2026, while the other 14 dioceses press on.

The province of Québec runs its own refugee program, including its own private sponsorship program. But Action Réfugiés of the Diocese of Montreal actively participates in the PWRDF Refugee Network and its director, Ian Van Haren, who is also a member of the PWRDF Board of Directors, spoke about how private sponsorship organizations in that province share many similar challenges as their counterparts in the rest of Canada.

The group also shared successes they have enjoyed in this ministry. Alex Hauschildt, director of AURA (Anglican-United Refugee Alliance) in the Diocese of Toronto, spoke about the support he has received from the bishop and diocese over the past three years to hold a diocesan-wide Refugee Sunday. The group expressed interest in organizing such a Sunday nationally. And Mimi Merrill from DOORS (Diocese of Ontario Refugee Support), the only SAH in the Kingston area, spoke about the relationships and collaborations that have emerged recently with the local refugee settlement agency, the community, and the local Member of Parliament.

As a final reflection, the coordinators were invited into a writing exercise beginning with the prompt, “A refugee once said to me…” In the sharing that followed, it was immediately evident just how transformational their encounters with refugees – some over many years, others only beginning – have been for them, not only initially but also in the years that have followed a year-long sponsorship. “It is good to hear from [refugee] families as the years move on about how they are doing,” said Jane Townshend. “They can help keep us going, and sustain us.”  

In the end, refugee sponsorship is about people and relationships. It is about the encounter with the vulnerable “other” and that transformation, not only in the “stranger,” but also in those welcoming refugees to Canada, to their communities, to their parishes and ultimately, welcoming them “home.”

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