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'This is really community building': What sponsoring a Syrian refugee family means to one Toronto parent

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As of October 23, 33,239 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada.

rabble.ca's Activist Toolkit is interviewing people who are on the frontlines of refugee settlement to find out about what they are seeing on the ground and what additional supports they need to address the needs of this surge of refugees. 

Our first interview on this subject was with Dr. Michael C. Stephenson, the Director of Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre.  This interview was followed by an interview with Maisie Lo, the Director of Immigrant Services at WoodGreen Community Centre, and an interview with Shawk Alani, of Simon Fraser University who put together a photography summer camp for Syrian refugee kids. Everybody has talked about the challenges facing us but also of the need to build a community and connections. These types of connections are what makes refugee programs successful.

This time the Activist Toolkit focusing on private sponsorship of refugees. Stephanie Rickard-Chadda and a group of parents whose kids go to Davisville Public School in Toronto have sponsored one family, are supporting another government-sponsored family, and have already sponsored a third family. Her parents are helping to sponsor a family in Bracebridge, Ontario. Stephanie talked to Activist Toolkit about her experience as a sponsor. 

While she shared her experience of the sponsorship system with us, Stephanie is not an expert on sponsorship requirements -- Lifeline Syria has a great guide on sponsorship. This is a transcription of our audio interview. The two Syrian families preferred to remain anonymous.

This is part of the Constructing Change series being developed by rabble.ca. We are always looking to interview people on the frontlines who are working for change in their communities. Please send any recommendations to toolkit@rabble.ca

Activist Toolkit (AT): Could you tell me about how the process of sponsoring a refugee family got started for you? What was it like until the family you sponsored arrived?

Stephanie Ricard-Chadda (Stephanie): We got an email in September of last year, shortly after the photos of the little boy on the beach came out. The email was from a mom I did not know very well, at least back then, whose kids went my kids' school. Her family had sponsored a Vietnamese family when she was younger. The little girl who was part of the sponsored family was her age so she still kept in touch. Therefore, she had a personal story about sponsorship and what it had meant for her growing up.

In September 2015, she reached out to people who she thought might be interested from the kids' school community. It was kind of a mixed bag of parents and I think she got a great response, in that a lot a people said yes, that they would engage, either by volunteering or by giving financially. 

So by December, early December, we had already raised the minimum we needed to raise to sponsor a family. Our sponsorship agreement holder is the Rosedale United Church. We found them through an email that had gone out from a local community centre. Anyway, we had fulfilled all the requirements, the police checks, the financial requirement. I think the minimum financial requirement for sponsoring a family of four in Toronto was about $45,000, I believe nationally it is $27,000.

Then we got confirmation of the family. We were given a list with a couple of different families and the group had to decide on a family to sponsor. Most of us in the group had kids and, since we had enough money and volunteers, we decided to sponsor the Ahmed* family. Then we waited a very long time. We didn't get an email that they were actually coming until August 2016. So it was pretty much a year from the time we all signed up.

In the meantime, one of our group members approached us with another family that needed help. She is a reporter who works for many different publications. She contacted us about the Nassir* family, who were already in Toronto, needed immediate help, and asked if anyone would be interested in helping them. Our group said "yes."

The Nassir family is a government-sponsored family that never heard from their settlement worker so were fending for themselves. They don't speak any English -- or didn't. Since we got involved we have been helping them with their needs including the many untreated and aggravated medical and dental issues that they developed after being in Turkey for four years

The situation is very different between the two families. The government-sponsored families are less ready to settle. For instance, many don't speak English, they are not as well educated, they've probably suffered more hardships.

The family we sponsored was living in Saudi Arabia for quite a long time. Each kid had a cell phone. However, in their case, the risk was that if the father lost his job in Saudi Arabia they would be sent back to Syria. The family we sponsored needs our help for now but our hope is that they will be up on their feet pretty quickly with jobs, since he is a Cisco systems specialist and she is an English teacher. Once they are ready, we can sponsor another family and we are sponsoring the second son of the Nassir family. 

It is a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to do something. We are not paying for everything for the Nassir family. The government is paying a stipend, but two-thirds of their stipend is going to their rent and they are using food banks to get by. He had bladder cancer, and the grandmother has diabetes and they also had major dental issues because they had not been addressed for four-to-five years. We have helped with clothing, and toys and above and beyond the financial commitment for the family that we sponsored. Our sponsorship agreement holder, the Rosedale United Church, has allowed us to sponsor the Nassir's other son.

It has been an ongoing process. One touching thing that happened was right before the Ahmed family arrived. Over the year it took for them to arrive we had collected a lot of things for them. However, there were so many people who needed things, like the Nassir family, and so we had also been helping them out.

We didn't realize that key things we needed for the Ahmed family had been donated to others until we opened the garage a few weeks before their family was scheduled to arrive. So I put out a post to some other mothers on Facebook, and that night moms started stopping by our house, some with brand new items, saying thank you for allowing us to help in this small way because we wanted to help but couldn't make that great a commitment. That was lovely.

AT: So you are helping two families, the Nassir family and the Ahmed family. Tell me more about what your responsibilities were to the Ahmed family and how you have been meeting them?

Stephanie: There are a number of different ways to sponsor and I am not totally familiar with all of them. We opted for the blended visa office referred sponsorship type, wherein a group of people work with a sponsorship agreement holder, in our case the Rosedale United Church, to sponsor a family. The sponsorship agreement holder has to be an organization vetted by the government and has done this kind of thing before. They hold our money in a bank account and then provide the backing to the government that our group can provide for the family.

I believe it was the United Church of Canada that provided us with the short list of refugee families and their situations. I think across Canada the requirement is $27,000 to ensure that you can sponsor a family of four for one year after they arrive. Rosedale United has said it is more like $45,000 in Toronto. We raised $55,000 very quickly and our intention is to sponsor the Ahmed family until they are on their feet.

Anyway, they arrived in September and that is the toughest time to find an apartment because they are all gone. We found some pretty crappy options and so I said they could stay in our basement until we found a place. It was a little stressful because I'd never met them before.

Then as luck would have it, I checked the rental website one last time, not expecting to find anything. There was one listing that had just been renovated which had not been listed when we checked the last time. It was a newly renovated apartment two minutes away from where my husband Ungad's family lives.

So my in-laws have been taking the Ahmed family to appointments and grocery shopping. Personally, I think is pretty amazing since Ungad's father's grandfather was killed in Lahore, Pakistan, during the internecine fighting that preceded the partition of India and Pakistan. So I think for them to...I don't know, I just think it is pretty awesome and they are pretty awesome.

AT: Tell me more about your responsibilities to the Ahmed family.

Stephanie: It is really caring for everything for a year. Once that year is up, if they are still struggling, they are eligible for the compensation, unemployment insurance, but the idea is that they are up and running in a year. You find an apartment that they will be able to afford once they are at the end of the year, you help them get their kids registered for school, you help to go to ESL classes, you help to connect them to their local settlement agencies and all that kind of stuff. 

AT: What are some of the problems you have seen in the process?

Stephanie: My parents are sponsoring a family in Bracebridge with the local Rotary Club, five churches and the local Bracebridge municipality. The municipality is offering them all sorts of municipal benefits. The problem is they have been waiting for over a year already. They have jobs lined up for the family and they have been trying to help the family to stay out of the refugee camps; however, the family can't work and is running out of money and so may have to go to the refugee camps. The sponsorship group has even offered to even pay for their flights. The thing is that the UN High Commission for Refugees has a waiting list for refugee families and won't let people skip ahead. 

Have you heard about how sponsorship groups are now being given the option to change families to a family that is further ahead in the line or waiting list? Groups have made all these contacts and connections on behalf of the family they are sponsoring before they arrive. Then they are told that you may be better off if you sponsor another family. Where does that leave the family that the sponsorship group was in contact with? Do they get sponsorship? There are only so many families and so many sponsors.

I understand both sides. For UNCHR, the list represents fairness. The issue for sponsoring groups is that they are ready to meet their responsibilities but can't keep the opportunities open indefinitely and the opportunities are not transferable. For example, a job is offered based upon qualifications to a particular person.

It was really wrong of the government to fast-track the government-sponsored families because the settlement agencies were not as equipped to manage that many people. Our experience is with the Nassir family whose settlement worker never did get in touch with them.

In Toronto, we put a lot of taxpayer money into putting people up in hotels because there was not enough housing for them when they arrived. If they had prioritized the privately sponsored families, sponsored by the community groups, like Rotary, like churches, where their whole life is volunteering, taxpayers would not have been impacted in the same way. So I just don't understand why they didn't prioritize the privately sponsored instead of taking all the cost onto the government and not settling them well because it was such a mad rush.

AT: What was this experience like for your school community?

Stephanie: This is really community building. It's amazing. I didn't know most of these moms very well and now I know a whole bunch of the moms and dads that have been brought together. We have all hosted a couple events, like picnics for the families. It is a lovely way to get to know each other, through benevolent work. 

AT: It is so much better than a bake sale, not that there is anything wrong with bake sales.

Stephanie: Exactly.

*Names have been changed. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Image: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Zaatari refugee camp

 

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