Across Canada, in small towns and major cities, there are people slowly working on projects about which they care deeply, but which even their friends and relatives and neighbours may know little about, or have little interest in. They continue to do the work because they believe it is important, and in small ways they are able to make positive changes. Much of that work, so often lumped under the vague umbrella of “social justice,” is done in this fashion: quietly, and out of sight.
Until one day, something happens to draw the attention of the entire world to an issue, and suddenly this work becomes very visible, very quickly.
This is what happened to Debra Fieguth in early September, after the lifeless body of a young Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey, and the refugee crisis became front-page news.
Fieguth, the chair of Diocese of Ontario Refugee Support (DOORS), became involved in refugee work after helping a friend, who had come from Congo as a refugee, bring her sister and five of her children to Canada in 2004.
“This woman needed help, needed to come to Canada, so I and a small group from our diocese and the community sponsored her to come to Canada,” Fieguth said.
She had been working on staff with the diocese as social justice co-ordinator at the time, and had became involved in the diocese’s refugee work, helping to resettle refugees from Burma, Columbia, Iraq and Eritrea.
“DOORS has not done all that many sponsorships over the years,” she said. “Just sporadically when we hear about people who need help.”
But the infrastructure—and a small group of dedicated volunteers—was there, and when the phones started to ring and the emails started to come in from Anglicans who wanted to know how they could help, Fieguth was in a position to channel concern into positive action. In the last six weeks, DOORS has helped to facilitate as many refugee sponsorships since the beginning of September as it has in the last decade.
But there were also people for whom the picture of Alan Kurdi served as a wake-up call to get seriously involved. Nadia Gundert was one such person.
“I have got three little ones at home, and I remember watching the news one night with my husband and saying, ‘this is just ridiculous—I know this has been an ongoing issue, but it’s just so sad that it’s coming to this and that there are so many people who need our help.’ ”
Gundert was working for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Kingston’s youth office, and unlike the Anglican diocese of Ontario, the Catholic archdiocese was not a sponsorship agreement holder and could not facilitate refugee sponsorship independently.
Fortunately, Gundert was also involved in the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic archdiocese and the Anglican diocese of Ontario, an ecumenical collaboration on social justice issues that began in 1987. Fieguth shared a presentation on refugee sponsorship with the commission that was supposed to last five minutes, but ended up taking a full hour because of intense interest.
Both denominations decided to work together on refugee sponsorship, drawing on financial and volunteer support from both churches and utilizing the Anglican diocese’s status as sponsorship agreement holder to apply to resettle refugees.
The response, according to Fieguth and Gundert, has been remarkable.
Fieguth organized a September 16 meeting at St. James’ Anglican Church in Kingston, Ont., for those who wanted to become involved, and while she was expecting at most two dozen participants, 76 people showed up.
“They were Anglicans and Catholics and Quakers and Baptists, and from the Alliance Church, from the Salvation Army, and people from the community who weren’t affiliated with church,” she said. “People from the settlement agency came as well, so it was clear there was a lot of interest there.”
Gundert became involved in leading the Catholic response. Her phone has been “ringing off the hook for the last month and a half,” she said, with calls from parishioners who want to know how they can help.
While Fieguth and Gundert are happy to engage with people interested in sponsoring refugees, they are also working hard to make sure that volunteers will stay active when the public concern over the refugee crisis dies down.
Fieguth noted that the cooling of passions over the long-term was a potential concern, but stressed the importance of making connections between people so that volunteers understand the commitment they are making.
Gundert agreed, and was hopeful that those coming on board are serious about their involvement.
“Those parishes that have taken [refugee sponsorship] on as something more long-term certainly see that, as part of their ministry, this will be something that they give ongoing support,” she said.