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​Waiting to welcome the stranger

May 25, 2020

By Suzanne Rumsey

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PWRDF’s Refugee Network continues its work despite COVID-19

March 24, 2020 – The PWRDF Refugee Network, made up of Refugee Coordinators from the 15 dioceses that hold Private Sponsorship Agreements with the Canadian government and PWRDF staff, meet by Zoom for the first time, a week after “lockdown” began and the border was closed. The news shared is first about cancelled travel and cancelled arrivals of refugees who have waited, sometimes for years, to come to Canada:

  • “A family was to arrive last Thursday, but their travel was cancelled Tuesday.”
  • “Interviews as well as travel have been cancelled in Turkey.”
  • “Six travel cancellations were issued the night before travel was to occur…”
  • “The diocese had an arrival last week cancelled.”
  •  “Two teens travelling from Eritrea, had their travel cancelled.”
  • “Two cases involving nine people had their arrivals cancelled. Interviews have also been cancelled.”

And then, the one bit of good news about the refugee who safely made it to Canada just as the border was closing:

“A refugee arriving on March 15 through London made it, but actually landed on March 17.  The sponsors had an apartment set up and that person is now in quarantine.”

April 27, 2020 – The PWRDF Refugee Network meets for another Zoom check-in. Six weeks into lockdown and with the border closed for the indefinite future, the discussion focusses on the ongoing work and challenges of preparing applications for refugee sponsorship:

  • “I’m working on applications but can’t get out to meet with people and that’s hard, especially when dealing with a language barrier.”
  • “Getting information from overseas has been time-consuming.”
  • “Signatures are a challenge when it involves a co-sponsor, constituent group and the refugee.” (Some are trying to get it done manually, others having to wait. Some scanning is happening, some e-signatures. Some hard copy signatures are happening in parking lots while observing social distancing!)

And then there are the times when applications are successfully completed:

  • “I’ve submitted 16 cases in the past month on behalf of some very organized Eritreans!”

The Refugee Network will meet again in late May, the time of year when normally it would gather in person for a day prior to meetings with other Sponsorship Agreement Holders (the SAH Council) and with government – Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). But like all other meetings in the time of COVID-19, the Network, the SAH Council and IRCC will all meet online.

In a recent essay in The Globe and Mail, eminent Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan wrote, “Canadian society is coping now and will cope in the future because of the wealth of groups across the country who have for years supported charities, volunteered, participated in their communities or gotten engaged in politics.” 

PWRDF knows this to be true. Our volunteers from coast to coast to coast are finding creative ways to carry on their ministry on behalf of PWRDF in many innovative and creative ways; none more so than the Refugee Coordinators – some of them paid staff, but many also volunteers – who continue to take seriously the biblical imperative to “welcome the stranger” even as cancelled flights, closed borders and the suspension of travel by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), make actual “welcomes” impossible right now.

Refugee coordinators are supporting refugees, both individuals and families, who arrived prior to the border closure, seeking out ways to connect them with online language services, health care and all their other needs, including how to deal with COVID-19. And they are communicating like crazy: with co-sponsors, service providers, and the refugees themselves.

They are keenly aware that parishes who have sponsored or hope to sponsor refugees are currently faced with enormous challenges, not least of which are financial. At the same time, they are keenly aware of the need: endless waiting lists, messages from those seeking refuge, and the stark reality that there are more displaced people in the world today than at any time since the Second World War. COVID-19 has only exacerbated that reality.

And so they wait to welcome the stranger once again. May we, together with them, wait in hope.

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