Canadian Baptist of Western Canada

A record year of refugee sponsorships is just the beginning

One hundred and ninety-three individuals, almost half of them children, arrived in Canada last year to the welcome arms of CBWC church communities. Fifty-one more were sponsored and are waiting for final approval to come.

Most years we sponsor between 6 and 12 refugees, so last year was remarkable. The high number was possible because the government increased the quota, and because our churches generously committed to sponsor a record number of people.

Emile, Rita and baby Elias left Syria when their mostly Christian town was invaded by ISIS.

One young couple—with a baby born just 10 weeks before coming to Canada—was sponsored by Trinity Baptist Church in Sherwood Park. The refugee sponsorship committee met Emile, Rita and their newborn baby Elias at the Edmonton airport in April last year, and haven’t left their side since.

One church member shared her home for the first few weeks while others helped the couple shop for their own apartment. The committee helped Emile & Rita navigate English classes, apply for Social Insurance Numbers, open a bank account, and find the good grocery stores nearby.

Other young mothers came over to play with Elias, and one family took them all fishing. Eventually they found a good daycare so Rita could start applying for work. Emile had been an appliance repairman in Syria and is now an apprentice electrician.

Sponsored refugees get one year of financial assistance and support from their sponsor, whether it’s a private sponsor or government agency. Month 13 looms over them in that first year as they study English, find housing, and figure out what work skills are transferable.

Emile was an appliance repairman in Syria and found work as an apprentice electrician in Edmonton. His job started right after he finished the required English school, but his first paycheque wouldn’t come until three weeks into month 13. Trinity Baptist wasn’t about to abandon Emile & Rita.

“Some church members, above the church commitment, donated grocery gift cards and other things to get them through the month until Emile’s first paycheque,” Barb Borkent says. Barb’s been supporting the new family as part of the sponsorship committee.

“And of course, as an apprentice electrician, Emile needed to buy an inventory of tools, so someone paid for a work jacket, boots and the tools he needed to start.”

The transition period after the first year is important says Majd AlAjji, CBWC’s refugee sponsorship coordinator. “Number one is, we stay friends. They are part of the family. This wasn’t a business transaction. Just because the legal requirement is up, our friendship doesn’t stop. I encourage the churches to go over to visit, invite them over, stay friends.”

Strathcona Baptist Church in Edmonton sponsored a Syrian family of five who arrived in February 2016. It’s now well past the one-year mark, and the three couples who were primarily involved are still there, helping set up dentist appointments, picking the youngest daughter up from camp, helping the father and oldest sons find work. “The honeymoon is over,” says Luella Currie, who initiated the sponsorship. “This is the time when they really need to be more independent, and they’re getting there. But it’s hard, learning a new language, and getting used to a new culture and everything.”

Last week the family invited Luella and the others who have been regularly helping out to a BBQ in the park. “They’re so fun to spend time with, we really enjoy being with them. They’re very hospitable, making this delicious food and sharing it with us.”

Sponsoring refugee families is an opportunity to show love without asking for anything in return. “You can’t force Jesus Christ on anyone,” Majd says. “What I see is that people are coming to Christ because they see love. They see love and ask questions, and from there they learn about Jesus Christ.”

Majd works with churches and sponsored refugees through all stages of the process. He’s an invaluable resource for the sponsoring churches, Barb says.

“For us, the process is going as well as it is because of Majd. Answering all our questions multiple times—committee members ask the same questions separately, and he patiently answers all of us—and he tells us what things we need to think about ahead of time and prepare for,” she said. “And then there’s the help with translating. Emile & Rita have pretty good English, but sometimes we had trouble understanding each other, so Majd would help translate. I’m sure he’s working three times as many hours as he’s getting paid for. We’d love to see that ministry get more funding and resources.”

Since Majd started working with CBWC in 2015, his prayer has been that refugee sponsorship would become a regular part of church life, not just a crisis response. “I want it to be part of their regular budget. That has been my prayer from the beginning,” he says. It’s why he puts so much focus on following up with the sponsoring churches, to help them through the struggles and support them through the whole process, so they build the resources and experience to do it again.

So far it seems to be working. This year, CBWC was allocated 22 spots (less than the 61 spots we applied for, and far less than the need, but still higher than the previous years’ average) and they’re already spoken for. Most churches sponsoring families this year, Majd says, also sponsored a family last year, including Trinity Baptist.

“It’s something our church is planning to do every year,” Barb says. “The oil downturn has really affected our church, so giving is down. But we’re still committed to making this a regular part of our ministry.”

Before Emile & Rita arrived, the church had already applied to sponsor another family. It’s an Iraqi mother and son who fled to Syria as refugees before the Syrian civil war spread throughout the country. Now they are refugees twice over, and are still waiting for Canada to process their application to be sponsored by Trinity Baptist. Barb expects it could take another 5 years.

Not content to wait, Trinity Baptist has also applied to sponsor Rita’s mother, sister, brother in law and niece who are in a Lebanese refugee camp. They’re expected to arrive next summer.

Last week, Barb took Rita and the family go karting. “They think it’s really cool that I have a car and that I drive, and I offered to teach Rita how to drive. She got her learner’s license and we went out, but I found out she had no idea how a car works,” Barb laughs. “It was too much, so I decided to take them go-karting. Simple go, stop, steer! We had a great time, and it was a good chance for Rita to get familiar with driving something simple.”

This article was published in Volume 13, Issue 6 of Making Connections. Subscribe to the Making Connections monthly newsletter here