SASKATOON — After the world’s attention was captured by the image of a drowned toddler in September 2015, an ever-increasing awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees has prompted a generous response from parishes, organizations and individuals in our community, says Christine Zyla, who co-ordinates the Office of Migration in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
“I have the great good fortune of seeing the goodness in people’s hearts. The phone calls and e-mails and visits asking how we can help just keep on coming,” Zyla said in a report to the Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) Jan. 16 in Saskatoon.
“When I remind people that there are many other populations at risk besides Syrians, the same desire to help is there, and all options are explored,” she added.
In addition to some 4.5 million refuges escaping violence and persecution in Syria, millions of other refugees are also fleeing for their lives from other places around the world — such as Eritrea, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Burundi — with some finding safety and a new life in Canada.
The 1951 Refugee Convention is a multi-lateral United Nations treaty that officially defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.” That UN treaty also spells out the rights of those who are seeking asylum, and the responsibilities of nations in granting asylum.
For refugees, leaving their home is not a matter of choice, explains the United Nations Refugee Agency at www.unhcr.org. “Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state — indeed, it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death — or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights,” states the UNHCR website.
The moral imperative to “welcome the stranger” in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon has for several decades included living out the diocese’s role as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). As a SAH, the diocese has signed an agreement with the federal government to resettle refugees through private sponsorship. SAHs can sponsor refugees themselves or work with others in the community to privately sponsor refugees.
Besides permitting private sponsorship, Canada also welcomes government-sponsored refugees — including many being brought in as part of a recent government promise to welcome some 25,000 fleeing violence and persecution in Syria.
Through the diocesan Office of Migration, Zyla co-ordinates the diocese’s role as a SAH, working with parishes, organizations and family members to privately sponsor refugees, including covering costs associated with resettlement, and providing a welcoming community of support for the newcomers.
“Getting applications ready to go and then helping newcomers settle certainly requires a team effort,” stressed Zyla, expressing appreciation to parish refugee committees who are working extremely hard to follow through on work initiated and supported by the diocesan office.
“In the past year, we welcomed 10 newcomer families at the Saskatoon airport. They came from Syria, Pakistan, and Eritrea,” reported Zyla. “We lost one Syrian father and his three-year-old daughter to smugglers. Thankfully, they did make it to Greece and are now making their way through the European system.”
In 2015, the diocesan office initiated applications for 39 individual refugees. “These include three Syrian families and 19 Eritrean families or singles and two brothers from Pakistan,” she said. “Our current diocesan waiting list has more than 60 files on it, and many of those are for families, mostly Eritreans.”
SAHs across Canada have been told that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is currently working on determining the allocations for sponsorships for the new year, and the diocese’s numbers for 2016 should be announced some time in February, she said.
“We don’t know for sure yet how many applications we will be allowed to submit, but we have been assured that the focus on Syria will not take away from the work of all the other Visa posts where applications for refugees from other places are being processed.”
In the meantime, Zyla continues to have frequent walk-in inquiries for sponsorships — coming from parishes, from individuals with overseas family members in dire straits, and from other Christian churches, as well as groups unaffiliated with any particular church.
Zyla said she sees God at work in the generosity of those who are reaching out to help — as well as in the arduous and complex circumstances that bring refugees to safety and a new life in Canada (see related article).