“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35-36)
In his own words… Friar Peter Knaapen, OFM Conv.:
St Bonaventure Parish has a long history of helping refugees settle in our community. It all began in the late 70s when we sponsored a family of “boat people” from Vietnam who were seeking freedom and a better life. In the 90s it was a Bosnian family seeking safety from the ethnic cleansing and civil war in the former countries of Yugoslavia. In 2010 Archbishop Collins asked the Catholic Community to come to the aid of Iraqi Chaldeans, Assyrians and others Christians displaced from their homelands and undergoing systematic elimination. St Bonaventure generously answered the call and sponsored an Iraqi family of four. We had money left over from our refugee fund so we decided to sponsor another family. The Office of Refuge of Archdiocese of Toronto recommended three families and in 2015 we decided to help a single mom with her two children who were refugees from Rwanda. In 2016 the Archdiocese of Toronto initiated Project Hope, a campaign to sponsor 100 families from Syria. Because we were in the midst of our yearlong sponsorship of our Rwandan family we could not commit to another family but our parishioners generously gave over $12,000 to support Project Hope.
In Canada in order to sponsor refugees an organization must be a Sponsorship Agreement Holder. In our case the SAH is the Office of Refuge of Archdiocese of Toronto. So for all refugee sponsorships we work closely with the Office of Refugee. They have information sessions explaining the whole process, timelines and responsibilities of the sponsoring parish. These responsibilities include finding and furnishing an apartment, providing food, clothing and all the other basic necessities of life for the whole year, enrolling them if necessary in an English as a Second Language course and helping them to find a job or enroll in school. It can take from one to two years for the whole process. Finally the best part is meeting them at the airport and bring them to their new home.
There are two types of sponsorship that our parish participates in. One as the parish is to sponsor and raise the money, find the apartment and get the name of the family from the Office of Refugees. The other is the parish as a co-sponsor. In this second case, a family member is trying to sponsor relatives to come to Canada. They have to supply the money (up front), provide accommodations for them and jobs. The parish cosigns the agreement with them, gives them moral support, and helps them through the process. We were successful in helping one Iraqi and two Syrian Kurdish families this way.
We have all seen the pictures of Alan Kurdi dead on the beach and the boy covered in dust pulled from the ruble in Aleppo and our hearts and prayers go out to them and their families. It is a much different feeling when a family member is in your office pleading with you to help their family get to safety. This has happened to me seven or eight times. In two cases we were able to help by co-sponsoring their family members. Because the Canadian Government had pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, our co-sponsorship was fast tracked. Instead of taking a year and a half to process the case the family members were here within six months! One man sponsored his mother, brother, sister and her husband to come to Canada. He helped them financially to get out of Aleppo and into Turkey. It is only about 30-40 miles to the Turkish border, but it took them 8 hours to go through or around different checkpoints and then to sneak across the border. The man was there to meet them, found them an apartment and paid the rent for a whole year. This gentleman sold his house in Toronto and moved to a smaller house in the outskirts of Toronto so he could help his family.
It was great to be able to help this individual and his family. But on the other hand it is tough when you have to say “I am sorry we cannot help you.” This happened several times; twice because the families were still in the country where they were born so could not be classified as refugees. Sadly one person said we will have to try and buy them passage on a boat to Europe or Indonesia. Other times it was because the quota was full. This happened last year because Canada made Syrian refugees their priority and so people from other countries were overlooked. This year we were all set to help an individual from Iraq co-sponsor his relatives. However the quota for 2017 given to the Office of Refugee was already filled by April. Unfortunately I had to say to the individual that he would have to try some other Sponsorship Agreement Holder. Sadly he has been trying for three years to get members of his family to Canada.