SASKATOON — A Catholic elementary school in Saskatoon has taken on the challenge of sponsoring a refugee family from Burundi, a small African country wracked by civil war.
Students of École St. Matthew School cheered and waved Canadian flags Feb. 4 at the launch of their campaign to raise $30,000 in support of the private refugee sponsorship of the family — a mother, father and four children who have fled Burundi and are now living as refugees in Rwanda.
The sponsorship was initiated after a parent at St. Matthew heard about the 1000 Schools Challenge issued by a school in Toronto, encouraging schools to sponsor refugees.
“Danielle Schock, one of our parents, heard about the 1000 Schools Challenge from a friend in Alberta, and there was immediate interest and support from our whole school community — staff, students and parents,” said François Rivard, principal at St. Matthew. “It was unanimous that this would be a great way to put our faith into action, a tangible way to share God’s blessings and demonstrate compassion and service to others.”
School representatives approached Christine Zyla, co-ordinator of the Office of Migration at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, with the idea. As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), the diocese has signed an agreement with the federal government that permits it to work with parishes and other groups in the community to privately sponsor refugees.
“At first I was hesitant about it, knowing that school councils and priorities can change from year to year,” Zyla said, noting that sponsorship is a big commitment that can take years to complete. “But when I spoke to them, I saw that the parents and the staff clearly understood the reality of sponsorship: they realize this is not just a one-year project or a six-month project. They have a vision and a plan for how this will unfold as the children grow over time.”
A refugee sponsorship committee consisting of students, school staff, parents and members of the Catholic School Community Council was established to oversee planning.
“We expect it will take about 18 to 24 months of fundraising before we can welcome a family into our community,” said Krista Schreiter, chair of the committee. “Our involvement won’t stop there. The family will need support to get used to their new home for about a year after they arrive. We’ll be here to support them every step of the way.”
Zyla is enthusiastic about the commitment being undertaken by the school, and the awareness and involvement already evident among the students. “This what Catholic education is about, this is faith in action, this is everything that we are called to,” she said. “I just keep thinking: ‘and the little children shall lead them.’ ’’
During the school assembly to launch the fundraising campaign, Farrukh Syeer of the Saskatoon Open Door Society, a helping agency that assists newcomers in becoming part of Canadian society, spoke to students about refugees and the challenges they face.
“First they suffer in their home country, then they suffer during their journey, then they suffer after their journey,” he said, describing how those fleeing their homes and travelling to other countries might be confined to refugee camps, or forced to live illegally, without an identity or rights. “Then, even if they are settled in a place where they are safer, it is not so easy to make a life in a new place that they don’t know much about.”
Syeer encouraged students to offer friendship. “Just treat them as equal and make them feel at home, make them feel at ease and be friends with them.”
Students were enthusiastic. “I think it’s a good idea,” Grade 8 student Ethan McCulloch said. “It gives families who are running for their lives a good opportunity of a better home. I know if I were in their shoes, I’d want help from someone.”
Grade 6 student Tauren Taylor was looking forward to how the school’s sponsorship will unfold. “We have to fundraise, and maybe soon we can communicate with the family. That would be great.”
Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools board chair Diane Boyko pointed to the good work that the teachers are doing to ensure that students understand the refugee situation, and how the school’s staff, parents and students are committed to helping those in need.
“These students are living their faith,” said Boyko, pointing out that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees, forced to flee into Egypt. Our teachers are giving them examples and are asking them to participate. They are going into this with their hearts open.”