BY TARA CARMAN, VANCOUVER SUN
METRO VANCOUVER — When members of a south Surrey congregation signed up to sponsor a refugee family, they thought in terms of supporting a group of perhaps five people.
Then, in late November, they got word from the Mennonite Central Committee, the group coordinating the sponsorship, that there was a family of eight that had been languishing in a refugee camp in Turkey for two years. The couple, originally from Iraq, have six children between the ages of four and 12, with the youngest two born in Syria. Would the congregation accept them, community development pastor Steve Bains of Gracepoint Community Church recalls being asked. They had 48 hours to decide.
There was no time to consult the 500-member congregation, so emails started flying among members of the church’s refugee sponsorship team. It wasn’t long before team member John Howat simply said: “Let’s do it.”
No one had any objection to a larger family, said chair Lois Waterton.
“Immediately the idea of a family and that it’s a family of not five but a family of eight, in my spirit I just felt this is a huge opportunity. That’s three more kids than we thought we were going to get, three more kids that can integrate into our culture well and contribute and be joyful.”
The larger-than-expected family, which will arrive in one to three months, will likely mean the congregation will have to offer more financial support than the $24,000 they have budgeted for next year.
Under the terms of the sponsorship, known as a blended visa-office referral, the federal government supports the family for half their first year in Canada and the congregation for the second half. In theory it’s supposed to be a 50-50 split, but because government support rates have not changed since 2007 and do not reflect the cost of living in a place like Surrey, Waterton said she expects it will be more like 70-30.
The government shelter allowance for a family of eight is a little over $800 a month, Waterton explained. Rent on a unit that can accommodate the family will be at least double that, so the congregation will have to make up the difference, even during the government supported period.
”I don’t think from this community, and from their connections, that the funds will be a challenge,” Bains said. “I think more of a challenge is really the areas of helping them settle.”
To that end, the congregation formed a refugee sponsorship team. Deb Mitchell is the care coordinator who will oversee the family’s settlement and identify people who can help with different aspects of it.
Mitchell, a teacher who runs a preschool, said she was motivated to volunteer with the committee by her experience teaching in Rwanda, where locals helped her adjust to daily life.
“I think that has given me a heart to want to do that really well for people here, just to know how scary that can be.”
One thing the Rwandans helped Mitchell do was translate her shopping list into the local language. With this in mind, she tracked down a smartphone app that allows someone to speak a word or phrase in English and have it translated it into Arabic.
Mitchell also has children in the school system and will help the family find a school in Surrey, where many are at or over capacity. This means students don’t always get into the one closest to their home. They will need an elementary school able to accommodate five or six new students.
But her most pressing concern is to find the family somewhere to live that they will be able to maintain when the year of government and church support is up.
A key piece of advice the group received from the Mennonite Central Committee was to set the family up in a lifestyle they’d be able to maintain and not create dependency, Bains added.
Tamara Raison got involved in the sponsorship because her husband’s family were refugees from Cambodia. She knows, first-hand, the importance of having refugees who are well supported when they arrive.
“They didn’t have a family … or a community backing them,” she explained. “Just seeing what my husband went through and his family and their story. … I want to get involved and just hopefully make this family’s experience a good one.”
Raison works in the medical field and hopes to help the family navigate the health care system.
The group does not know the religion of the family, Bains said, but have been told they were fleeing religious persecution.
“Somebody said ‘Are they Muslim or Christian?’ I said ‘What does it matter? There’s somebody in need.’”
There has been little in the way of direct communication from the family so far. One of the only things to have arrived is a series of pictures, done by one of the children.
It features Canadian flags, hearts, and the words “I love you.”