The city of Toronto is looking at a raft of new measures to make refugee settlement faster and easier after its mayor, John Tory, met with a number of faith-based groups this morning.
Tory called the meeting in order to get concrete ideas about how Toronto could assist in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, said Jennifer Henry, executive director of the ecumenical justice group, KAIROS, of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member.
Representatives from a wide cross-section of groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, were also present at the consultation.
At the end of the meeting, which lasted about an hour and a quarter, Tory made a commitment to work with the city to bring about the suggestions made by faith leaders as quickly as possible, said Henry. “I think that the mayor seemed to have a clear sense of faith communities in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways and in very concrete, on-the-ground ways giving leadership to refugee welcome, and he was wanting to get the best advice on what the city could do to make it happen.”
Suggestions put forth included a housing registry offering options for interim housing for refugees who arrive before they are anticipated; an assurance fund, like one now used in Winnipeg that provides financial backup in cases where sponsoring groups run into difficulties coming up with the necessary funds; and Henry’s own suggestion, “a school liaison-to assist children making the transition in, and the schools being prepared to be welcoming places for kids coming from refugee situations.”
There were proposals that the city serve as an “information hub” for people interested in helping refugees. “There’s a lot of people who have a heart and a will to help at this moment, but the refugee situation is complicated and they may not have all the information they need as to how they could assist either at the level of being sponsors or just providing other assistance,” said Henry.
Another meeting will be held in a month to report on the progress the city has made in putting the proposals in place. An information session for this purpose is already slated for September 27, hosted by Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc.
According to media reports, Tory said Toronto would prepare to bring 1,000 Syrian refugees to Toronto over the next two years. He himself is planning to sponsor one Syrian family.
There also seemed to be a consensus among the groups in attendance, Henry said, that however well-intentioned Toronto and other cities are to be more welcoming to refugees, the ball is really in Ottawa’s court.
“The mayor really wanted to focus on what Toronto could do, but I think there was a general recognition within the broader group of folks gathered there that there was a very specific and important role the federal government could play in expediting the process so that people’s generosity is not met with frustration as they experience so much delay in the process in getting people here,” she said. “The process is not equipped to deal with this crisis. There are just too many bureaucratic steps to go through.”
Martin Mark, director of the Office of Refugees at the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Toronto, said he tried to emphasize at the meeting the importance of not focusing on Syrian refugees to the exclusion of others.
“We have to be very inclusive,” he says. “The world’s 60 million refugee population lives in different countries and different continents, so we should not say that we care just about one.”
One significant measure now being directly undertaken by the archdiocese is Project Hope, an emergency appeal launched September 8.
The goal of the appeal will be to raise $3 million to settle 100 refugee families in the Greater Toronto Area as soon as possible. The appeal will require 100 volunteer committees to help with the settlement of the families.
Priority will be given to refugees “fleeing war and violence in areas of greatest need, including Syria and Iraq, regardless of religious affiliation,” according to a news release from the archdiocese.
The appeal is also meant to help refugees from outside the Middle East as well, said Mark. For the first time, he said, the archdiocese will be separating the fund-raising aspect from the other work required to sponsor refugees. Parishes will be asked to raise funds, which will be sent to a central account at the archdiocese; parishes will also be asked to express interest in welcoming families regardless of how much money they can raise.
Asked whether the archdiocese’s goal is realistic, Mark said, “I would be surprised if we didn’t exceed it. I would be surprised.” He said the call from Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, “didn’t go only to Catholics-it went to the world, and we have had inquiries even internationally. I’m not saying that it’s easy to get funds, but I’m saying a lot of people want to support the idea of settling more refugees.”