EDMONTON (CCN) — Last summer, St. Thomas More parishioner Eric Green was flipping through his Western Catholic Reporter when an article about Archbishop Richard Smith’s call to parishes to sponsor refugees caught his eye.
News of the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq including beheadings, rapes, bombings, massacres and kidnappings had not yet been widely publicized. A goal set by the archdiocese to sponsor 50 refugees had gained little traction due to the summer lull, when many parishioners would be away on holidays.
Green immediately picked up the phone and called Paulette Johnson, the refugee sponsorship co-ordinator for Catholic Social Services, asking her what an individual or parish could do.
Soon after, armed with a clip-out of the WCR article and information from Johnson, he stood before his parish in a speech after mass. The response was enormous.
“It was overwhelming, the instant response,” said Green.
Two individuals stepped forward that day with cheques for the amount it would cost to sponsor two families of five.
By November, a refugee sponsorship committee had been set up with 30 devoted parish members, including two members from Syria and one from Iraq.
More than 100 individual donors from the parish and organizations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus donated enough that the parish is now able to sponsor 10 families.
Six committee meetings later, they anticipate the arrival of the first refugees as early as the end of June.
The rescue could not come any sooner for George, the father of the first refugee family expected to arrive at the parish.
In a distress letter received by the committee from Lebanon, George provided an account of how he had to leave his home and job as a cellphone sales supervisor in Aleppo. He nearly lost his life when he was kidnapped in March 2013 by an armed group in Syria that learned he is a Christian.
After he was released by the kidnappers, he took his wife and three children, who were living in fear due to continuous bombings close to his kids’ school, and fled the country.
Christians in Syria make up 10 per cent of the population, numbering around 1.8 million, according to a Syrian Christian support website. Since the start of the civil war, 700,000 Christians have left Syria.
“It’s mostly Christians being beheaded, the women are being raped, the children are dying of hunger and thirst,” said Green.
“All of this hatred and evil is chasing these people from their homes and lives and we want to bring them here and give them an opportunity for a new life of peace and freedom.”
Estimating the number of refugees in Syria and Iraq at 11 million, Tom Keating, another member of the parish refugee sponsorship committee, said the parish’s initiative is a continuous effort, with no set fundraising goal.
“The final objective is to help as many families as we can,” he said. “That’s the ultimate objective so there’s not a target as such. There are all these families in need so we have no goal. This is a continuous, fluid situation.”
Committee members have been bolstered by admonitions from Pope Francis to think about those who are less fortunate, wherever they come from, whether in our own communities or abroad, said committee member Don Schurman.
“I think (Pope Francis) planted the seeds, and I think the crisis in Syria and Iraq became apparent to everyone, and then there was local leadership and the community quickly rallied around,” Schurman said.
Johnson, who has been submitting the paperwork for the refugee sponsorships through a federal government agreement with the Edmonton archdiocese, called St. Thomas More’s initiative “amazing.”
“That’s totally outstanding for one parish to take on so many cases,” she said.
According to Johnson, the archdiocese submitted 20 applications for Syrian and Iraqi refugee sponsorship in 2014. That means 55 people in 20 families from the two countries will find homes in the archdiocese.
In 2015, so far CSS has submitted 28 cases for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, involving another 63 people. Ten of these cases have not yet been submitted because collection of all documentation has not yet been completed, she said.
Altogether, 14 parishes have been involved in rescuing persecuted people from Syria and Iraq.
One refugee family from Syria sponsored by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, has already arrived safely in Canada and is now settling in north Edmonton.
A second Syrian family is expected to arrive in the next six to eight weeks, according to OLPH refugee sponsorship committee member Yves Lamarre.
At the last meeting of the St. Thomas More committee, members seemed “very excited and very pumped” to be receiving their first families in the near future, said Green. They have identified several potential homes where the families could live close to Catholic schools, shopping and transportation.
Students and staff of Mother Margaret Mary High School have also been involved in the parish’s sponsorship efforts, contributing furniture and other household items for the refugee families.
Students at St. Mary Elementary School will also take on the parish’s sponsorship effort as their social justice project next school year.