SASKATOON — In September, St. Philip Neri Parish in Saskatoon welcomed the first Syrian refugee family sponsored through the diocese, and Holy Spirit has also enthusiastically embraced sponsorship of another Syrian family (consisting of a mother, father and two daughters) who arrived Dec. 10.
These are only two of many cases of private sponsorship of refugees from Syria and other countries in crisis that has involved the Office of Migration in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, which is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) through an arrangement with the federal government (see related article).
Catholic parishes and other churches currently undertaking refugee sponsorship in Saskatoon include St. Philip Neri, Holy Spirit, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Mary, St. Anne, Sts-Martyrs-Canadiens, St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Joseph, St. Patrick, Holy Resurrection Orthodox, Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox, Sts. Peter and Paul and Dormition Ukrainian Catholic parishes, Resurrection Lutheran Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, Third Avenue United and Knox United churches.
“Right now, two other Syrian families (that are designated for private sponsorship in the diocese) are hunkered down in Northern Iraq,” said Christine Zyla, co-ordinator of the diocesan Office of Migration. The situation there is dire, and now includes a ‘no-fly zone.’
“We don’t expect that the Visa officers will be able to go in there to do interviews. We are worried about them, family members are worried about them. We are just trying to keep in touch.” She expressed appreciation for the support and communication coming from government officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in recent weeks.
One of the two families trapped in Northern Iraq is a family-linked sponsorship shared by Our Lady of Lourdes and a family member in Saskatoon, and the other is being co-sponsored by Holy Spirit and a childhood friend of the family who now lives here.
“That friend who is working with Holy Spirit in co-sponsoring this young couple in northern Iraq has in the meantime been very active in helping the parish with translation, and with helping another new family get settled in,” noted Zyla. “This is the beauty of private sponsorship: the relationships that develop.”
St. Philip Neri Parish also recently welcomed a long-awaited family of seven from Eritrea, coming by way of Sudan, co-sponsored with a family member, she reported, noting the application was first initiated in 2011.
At times, such long delays mean that a sponsorship falls through. For instance, one Syrian family that was identified for sponsorship in Saskatoon resorted to smugglers in the face of delays and hardships, with the father and his three year-old-daughter fleeing to Greece by boat. Thankfully, they arrived safely and are now proceeding through the European system, Zyla said.
However, there are also other “miracle stories” of sponsorships working out in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. In two cases, sponsorship unfolded over many months after an initial, exploratory e-mail sent by desperate refugees to the diocese.
Zyla described how refugees will comb the Internet looking for help, with some seeking out Catholic sponsorship groups such as the Office of Migration in the diocese of Saskatoon. She cannot respond to every such e-mail — sometimes because of language barriers, sometimes because of misunderstanding about what the office can do. “However, the odd time I do get an email from overseas that I actually can respond to.”
A refugee in Lebanon found the office online, and with a good command of English, was able to describe his situation in an exploratory email. “He explained that he and his family were from Maa’loula, which is the southwest corner of Syria, and they had fled because ISIS had come in and destroyed their farm,” Zyla related. “They had fled to Lebanon. He didn’t know if we would be able to help, he was just taking a leap of faith.”
Zyla sent a message expressing regret for all the family had suffered, and relief that they were safe. She explained that she did not know if her office could help them, but would see what she could do. “He was so happy that I even replied,” she said. “He sent me some pictures of what Maa’loula looked like, and pictures of their daily life before it was all destroyed. I come from a farming background: when he said it was a farm, and he said that the farm had been destroyed, it really tugged at me and who I am.”
In the months that followed, they continued to stay in touch via email. “I tried to encourage them,” she said, citing the high interest in sponsorship, and new people and groups coming forward. After hearing an interview on CBC radio with an Anglican priest who had been born in Syria and served in Maa’loula, and learning more about the disappearing Aramaic dialect in the area — a dialect that Jesus spoke — their email conversations deepened, and she learned more about the family and about their faith.
“He told me they are Melkite Christians (a Byzantine rite of the Catholic church). Just as I was beginning to clue into this connection, one of the parishioners of Dormition Ukrainian Catholic parish (Byzantine rite) in Saskatoon came in to my office and said, ‘I really feel our parish should be doing something about refugees: I really feel that we should be sponsoring a Syrian family.” Zyla pulled out the file of the family living in Lebanon.
As a result, Dormition is now partnering with Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic parish in Saskatoon to sponsor one of the older brothers and his wife, and a younger 18-year-old brother.
The young man who initiated the email won’t be part of this sponsorship — he is scheduled for mandatory military service, and the family together decided it was best if the two other brothers came to Canada. “But it all started with a leap of faith on this young man’s part, as he sent that e-mail,” said Zyla. “I’m flabbergasted by what God can do if we just make the smallest room.”
Another e-mail connection with a Syrian family that has fled to Saudia Arabia — a father, mother and two young boys — has also led to a sponsorship in Saskatoon by three Christian churches that approached the diocese seeking the support of a local SAH. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, Third Avenue United and Knox United Church are going to sponsor the family, whose circumstances have been steadily deteriorating since the family first made contact with the diocesan Office of Migration with a random email. “I just felt like I needed to keep the conversation going, that God had a plan,” said Zyla.
“I could see how things were slowly getting worse for this family. Their resources were dwindling. The two little boys were no longer allowed to attend school. The wife couldn’t work or even go outside the home unaccompanied by a man under Saudi law,” she described, adding that their permission to stay in Saudi Arabia was coming up for review in March and there was a real fear that the family would have had to leave the country. With the three Saskatoon churches willing to take on this private sponsorship, the forms have been filled out in record time, and the family has been issued a file number, and can safely stay in that country until the process of getting to Canada is complete.
“I know we can’t help the millions, but who only knows how many lives will be affected by this family, because they have been given a chance?” said Zyla. “That ripple effect is God’s work, and we have a tiny part in it.”
Zyla marvels at the dedication and generosity of people who want to make a difference in the lives of suffering people around the world. She noted that among those coming forward to ask about sponsorship are those without any affiliation with a parish, church or organization.
This fall, two nurses approached the Office of Migration, asking about how to initiate a private refugee sponsorship. Both had served overseas in Haiti and had a good understanding of what was involved. Zyla recommended they get a larger group together, and within a few weeks the two nurses had created a group they dubbed Saskatoon Refugee Sponsorship Group, which had commenced with fundraising and collecting donations.
When it came to choosing whom to sponsor, they asked Zyla to suggest some possibilities. Ultimately they asked for the case that would be most difficult to find sponsorship for — a family of five from Eritrea presently living in Sudan who has been on file since 2012.
“They have a family member living here and the group is already developing a friendship. When the family arrives, the friendships will have already started,” she said. “This is exactly what we want- the building of friendships, the building of hope.”
For more information about refugee sponsorship, contact Christine Zyla at the diocesan Office of Migration at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon or email email@example.com.