Monday, 14 September 2015

We might help refugees more in support role

Like many Canadians, I had a visceral reaction to the photos of the body of young Alan Kurdi washing ashore on a Turkish beach. Since then, a lot has happened.

The Prime Minister has said that Canada will continue to admit refugees from Syria on a priority basis, but he would not compromise Canadian security by starting an airlift or even an expedited refugee process.

I am told by colleagues that there was much after-church chatter over coffee about what we could do, and that there were some vague feelings of unsettlement that “something” should be done. But not having access to a congregation’s coffee hour, I did some of my own listening this past week. What I found out may be surprising.

I spoke to some of those involved in the most recent refugee family resettlement in Owen Sound. They made some important points which I hope people would consider seriously before moving forward with refugee sponsorship.

The first thing I was told is that one family being resettled in Owen Sound as refugees is incredibly tough. There is generally no supportive larger community of the same nationality. This was a serious problem with the Karin family from Burma. As the nearest Karin community was in Hamilton, support and encouragement from fellow refugees and immigrants was almost impossible. The need for supportive community in that first year could not be stressed enough, I was told.

The second thing I was told was that Grey Bruce has very little to offer in the area of employment for refugees with little or no English language competence or Canadian job skills. Seasonal work shuts down in December. It’s a long winter. Lack of meaningful work leads to many complications, crisis and even depression among refugees in that crucial first year.

Finally, Grey Bruce does not have the refugee and immigrant support services found in larger centres. These services, sometimes called settlement houses, offer a one stop place to navigate to ins and outs of a new country. They provide services in the refugee or immigrant’s own language. They teach English. They provide support and assistance to help families get through the red tape of a new country as well as a listening ear when things just get to be too much. The nearest settlement house services are in Kitchener or London. There is nothing in Grey Bruce.

So what can we do?

In these situations of human tragedy my own default position is to send money. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a donation to any of the larger charitable groups serving refugees is a good way to begin.

Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada is offering up to fifty grants of $5,000 each to sponsorship groups. The only criterion is that the group have some connection to a local United Church.

The Archdiocese of Toronto of the Roman Catholic Church is putting its considerable resources into play to welcome one hundred refugee families to the community.

Many local churches and faith groups in larger centres are starting to dialogue and share resources to bring refugees to Canada.

There is an ongoing need to help civilians caught up in the civil war in the Middle East who are in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They need to be fed and protected. We can support the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Mennonite Central Committee, ACT Alliance (the world’s Christian churches relief body) and the UN to help relieve their misery.

Bringing a refugee family or families calls for great thought, prayer and consideration. I hope those who want to do the hard work will talk to those with experience, first. And perhaps what we can do best is to support the work of others with better access to supportive community and resources. 


Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.