Making it happen

By on February 1, 2010

In Kaslo, B.C., the 25-member parish of St. Mark partnered with the tiny town to sponsor a Colombian family.

You could call Caroline Fitzpatrick a veteran of refugee sponsorships.

Since 1985, Fitzpatrick and a small ecumenical group of Anglican and United Church volunteers from Ottawa have helped 10 refugee families begin a new life in Canada. A member of Christ Church Bells Corners (CCBC) Anglican, Fitzpatrick helped found Refuge NOW (Nepean Ottawa West) after CCBC successfully sponsored a group of Vietnamese boat people. The ecumenical group has proved “dedicated and hardworking,” sponsoring families from such far-flung corners of the world as Cambodia, El Salvador, Albania, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast.

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Fitzpatrick says the group takes part in private sponsorships because it’s a chance to give others “an opportunity that they haven’t had before.” It’s also about the future of the children, she says. “You look at the kids and that’s what it’s all about.”

Last March, the group worked in partnership with The 50 Refugee Families Sponsorship Project, part of the 50th anniversary program of The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), to welcome an ethnic Karen family to Canada. Funding support from the initiative provides parishes with up to $5,000 plus a matching amount from Citizenship and Immigration Canada to help support sponsored refugees for a year.

The Karen family had been trapped for years in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand. The Karen, a minority ethnic group in Burma, were forced to flee to neighbouring Thailand in the mid-1990s, following a major offensive by the Burmese military regime against the Karen National Union.

“There isn’t a better time than now to get involved in this initiative,” says Carolyn Vanderlip, 50th anniversary co-ordinator for PWRDF. This is the first time PWRDF has offered this kind of funding for refugee sponsorship, points out Vanderlip, adding that “sometimes it [funding] feels like the biggest hurdle to a parish.” A family with two small children, such as the Karen family, needs about $20,000 for a year.

Today, Bay They Cel Lah (known as Thackla), 37, and her husband, Sel Ter Moo, 38, are busy taking ESL lessons. While they’re in class, their daughter, Ka Moy Dee So, 4, and son, KlerJ7

Nau Htoo, 2, attend daycare.

“I like Canada,” says Thackla. Her children love to play in the park and don’t mind having to “wear many clothes” to stay warm in winter, she says. The family’s apartment is near Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm, “so there’s a lot of open air, lots of parks and shopping close by,” says Fitzpatrick.

Life has also been “good,” says Thackla. Although she misses relatives left behind, she’s happy her children “will get a good education.”

On the west coast of Canada, in Kaslo, B.C., the 25-member parish of St. Mark managed to raise money to sponsor a Colombian mother and her three children. How? By seeking the support of their tiny local community (population: 1,000).

They also issued a challenge to other churches in their diocese of Kootenay to help support the family. “It was just sheer enthusiasm and determination of a small group of people that made it happen,” notes Vanderlip. The family arrived in September.

Back in Ottawa, Fitzpatrick says her experience helping refugees has taught her many lessons. Refugees need a supportive friend, not a parent, for instance. Even though refugees come to Canada having survived horrendous conditions, she points out, they are independent adults. “They are autonomous. You have to allow them to be themselves.” Showing newcomers how things work while waiting for the wheels of the Canadian bureaucratic process to turn is key. Fitzpatrick also learned that some families sponsored in the past are not interested in being referred to as refugee. “At some point, it’s not who they are anymore,” she explains.

Another lesson: don’t enter the sponsorship expecting “grateful” families to join your church. While some sponsored families eventually join the church that sponsors them, Fitzpatrick knows that it’s important not to have expectations that they do so. “I kind of get on the high horse when we’re sponsoring a family [and] some ask, ‘Are they Christian?’ I say, ‘I really don’t know and I really don’t care,’ ” she said. “It’s totally irrelevant.”

Refugee sponsorship offers both challenges and joys, according to PWRDF’s Vanderlip, who has worked as the diocese of Niagara’s refugee co-ordinator for 10 years. “What you’re doing is accompanying a family as they begin a new life in Canada, and that has ups and downs…. Some people assume that because they’ve been refugees and they’re coming to Canada, everything will be wonderful and they’re going to be so happy.”

The reality, however, is that the process is often extremely difficult. Remember that refugees arrive having left everything behind. Often this includes other family members. Some “go through culture shock,” notes Vanderlip. A sponsor’s role is “to journey with them through those challenges,” she says, adding that it’s “an amazing experience” and “a privilege” to “go through the ups and downs together.”

Invariably, parish sponsors say that they received more from the experience than the refugee family. “Often, it turns out be a transformational experience for the parish,” confirms Vanderlip.

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