Gail Holland (left) is a refugee co-ordinator for Holy Trinity church, Toronto. Her parish recently helped settle Joseph and Esperance Mbazimana, their two children and three nieces and nephews, from Burundi.
On a blustery winter morning, Gail Holland walks gingerly through hardened snow on a Toronto street. She is carrying two bags of toys from parishioners at Holy Trinity church where she is a warden. They are for the children she is visiting at Costi Reception Centre, a temporary residence for newly-arrived, government-assisted refugees.
At the door two children in pyjamas greet her with a broad smile. “Bonjour,” four-year-old Jacques and five-year-old Chantel say, as she gives them a hug. They have known each other for only 12 days, but already they call her “Mama Gail.”
Jacques and Chantel arrived from Nairobi on Feb. 4 – along with their father Joseph Mbazimana, and cousins Sinthea, 11, Justin, 13, and Yves, 14 (who are orphans) – under a joint refugee sponsorship program. Escaping the civil war in Burundi, they traveled to Congo and Tanzania before arriving in Nairobi. Joseph’s wife, Esperance, who arrived in Toronto in 2002, had no idea where they were until months later, when the international Red Cross located them.
After a two-year wait, Esperance and Joseph cannot believe they are together again. Ms. Mbazimana says their reunion would not have been possible without Holy Trinity church and Ms. Holland. “She’s like an angel that God sent to help me,” she says.
The Mbazimanas are a few of the many people that the Anglican Church of Canada has helped since the 1960s when supporting refugees became central to the mandate of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). Parishes across Canada help either through full sponsorship (a parish is responsible for all financial and social support), partnership (responsibility is shared among churches or groups) or joint sponsorship (federal and provincial governments provide basic financial support and the church, social support). Seventeen dioceses have refugee ministries; five – Niagara, Toronto, New Westminster, Calgary and Newfoundland – have active sponsorships.
Few churches offer full sponsorships because of the financial burden, says Elsa Tesfay Musa, PWRDF refugee/emergency relief co-ordinator. The process, which takes two to three years, plus rejections from Citizenship and Immigration Canada discourage them.
For Rosemary Anderson, former diocesan refugee co-ordinator for Ottawa, the motivation to help refugees comes from Matthew 25:35. “Jesus tells his disciples that whatever they do for those in need, including the stranger, is the same as doing it for him,” she says. “My faith shows me Jesus in the face of a refugee.” She became involved when the diocese helped resettle refugees from Vietnam who came in droves to Canada during the ’70s.
Ms. Holland, former co-ordinator of the national church’s Anglican Appeal, helped refugees from Central America in the 1980s before becoming Holy Trinity’s refugee co-ordinator in 2000.
Carolyn Vanderlip, refugee co-ordinator for the diocese of Niagara, has helped find sponsors for Somali refugees. She underscores the importance of the work that volunteers do in helping newcomers adjust to their new environment. “Things that we take for granted like riding a bus can be overwhelming.” Ms. Holland adds, “The trauma of war and abuse will always be there for most refugees.” It is the volunteer’s job to “support and encourage them towards independence,” says Ms. Vanderlip.
Ms. Tesfay Musa, a one-time refugee from Eritrea, agrees: “We must not forget that these are resourceful and strong people who have managed to survive in extraordinary situations.”
The Anglican church, which is marking its 25th year of refugee sponsorships with the federal government, “continues to be a welcoming place,” says Ms. Tesfay Musa. But immigration laws, which have seen drastic changes after September 11, “are making it difficult for people to arrive,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Ms. Holland, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Vanderlip say they will persist. The latter two women took a PWRDF-sponsored trip to refugee camps in Kenya. “To see thousands of people living in a kind of prison without walls, in limbo, is a life-changing experience,” says Ms. Anderson. “Once you’ve seen that, it’s hard to turn your back and do nothing.”