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Citizen Groups Welcome Refugees to Canada

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Grass Root Efforts Aid Syrian Refugees

When Liz Rykert was working as a consultant a hospital in Oswego, New York, she and colleagues visited the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, which preserves the memories of nearly 1,000 European refugees rescued from the Nazis in World War II and housed in what was then the Fort Ontario Army barracks. She also learned of the work of Ruth Gruber, the woman whose book Havendescribes the harrowing work of getting the refugees from war zones to a military ship for transport to the U.S. and safety.  

Rykert and her husband, John Sewell, who had accompanied her, thought of what refugees endure: dangers and hardships, loss of their worldly goods and comforts, fear of the future, and endless struggle to stay alive keep their children safe. Rykert recalls her husband saying: “We have to do something about Syrian refugees, being displaced by the millions, taking terrible risks.” His reaction was no surprise. Sewell, a life-long activist for progressive causes and a recognized urban affairs expert, formerly taught law and social and political science at York University and has held several posts in Toronto government.  As Toronto’s Mayor from 1978-1980, he helped organize Operation Lifeline, a citizens’ organization that helped bring refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam to Canada. Nearly a third of the 60,000 who arrived settled in Toronto. The insights learned and networks formed more than three decades ago have been a factor in the effort to welcome today’s victim of war and violence.  Sewell has now spearheaded a new group, LifelineSyria, and a new website, Toronto4Refugees (can’t find this) to foster the Syrian initiative.    

Rykert and Sewell are part of a group of 21 friends and neighbors sponsoring a refugee family who fled their home in Aleppo, Syrian, fearing for their lives. They spent two years in emergency quarters in Turkey before their arrival in Canada.  Omer Suleyman, a cook, his wife, Aliye El Huseyin,  nurse, and their three children, daughters Esra, 13, Marem, 8, and son Suleyman, 6,  are now in an apartment in Toronto, adjusting to new and very different lives.  A Toronto Globe and Mail story by Ian Brown describes the family, the sponsors, and their experiences.  

While the Obama Administration has pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, only about 5,000 had been admitted to the U.S. as of June. Governors of many states oppose their arrival and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Canada had admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees by last February, and expects 10,000 more.  

As of last February8,527 Syrian refugees had private Canadian sponsors, an unusual system unmatched elsewhere in the world. Sewell says some 10,000 private groups like the ones he and Rykert helped form have organized to welcome refugees and many are frustrated with national and international bureaucracies that have delayed arrival of their families. Immigrations officials, observing the doors closing to refugees across the world, have been surprised to find Canadian citizens impatient for more to arrive.

The sponsors commit to paying all their family’s expenses for a full year. Sewell explains the groups collect money (his collected some $45,000 and members don’t know amounts of individual contributions), make arrangements and help meet individual needs. Some sponsors take classes in how to help without smothering, and how to help foster eventual independence.  “It’s a brilliant system,” Sewell said. “We find them places to live, find doctors, get their kids into schools, and a network of people gets them into society, all at small expense to the government, which does pay for healthcare.” Rykert explains the groups introduce newcomers to others who speak Arabic, find banks and other businesses where someone speaks Arabic, locate mosques and grocery stores that sell halal meat and other foods they need, find tutors for children who have missed years of schooling, and free language classes for all.  While Suleyman and his wife were anxious to find jobs immediately, their sponsors encouraged them to focus on their new language for the sake of more success later. Five core people in the sponsoring group regularly visit the family, which can benefit from all their connections. “It make them feel welcome, and if there are problems, we’ll know and help,” Sewell said.  He said studies have shown privately sponsored refugees adjust more easily than those who are government sponsored because of the personal connections and relationships they develop.

The couple says many newcomers suffer from dental problems that result from the often-chaotic lives and erratic diets of refugee existence. Canadian health care doesn’t cover dentistry, so they found a friendly dentist who discounts rates. Treating their family.  Sewell recently took the Suleyman youngsters on a downtown outing, where they were delighted with their first escalator ride.

Sponsors benefit a much as the families they help, Sewell observes. “This is extraordinary community building,” he said. “We have gotten to know our neighbors in more ways than we’d have thought. You think you know your neighbors until you start something like this.  This expresses the best about being Canadian. We do this.” For the last 120 years, Sewell said, Canada has had immigrants and refugees equaling about one percent of the population annually.  “That means we are very adaptable, and very accepting of new people and different cultures,” he said. “That has been our history.”   

Canadians who came from Vietnam as refugees have integrated well, Sewell said, and many kept strong ties with their sponsors. Many have also maintained the spirit of their communities. Marianne Nguyen, who came to Canada from Vietnam as a 12-year-old without her parents nearly 40 years ago, now wants to help a Syrian family find a new home. A designer who was trained as an architect, Ms. Nguyen is heading one of 11 teams from Ryerson University that are part of Lifeline Syria’s effort tosecure private sponsorship for 1,000 Syrian refugees.  Read the story here.  Read a New York Times story on Syrian refugees in Canada here.  An accompanying story tells of efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S.

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