TORONTO (CCN) — As refugees come streaming down the ramp at Pearson International Airport, there are screams, sighs, tears and laughter. Mothers, aunts, fathers, brothers extend their arms to touch, to encircle their daughters, nieces, sons and friends. It’s a mad, mysterious, inspiring breakdown of order and decorum.
It goes on and on in English, French, several languages. Exhausted refugees fall into groups for photos. Children peer up at all these laughing, crying adults — at first fearfully and then with excitement.
This is the moment Martin Mark and the Office for Refugees lives for. The tiny office of five staff and dozens of volunteers puts in crushing hours struggling with the stack of forms and reports that goes into every refugee sponsorship application. Their work days stretch into long nights meeting with volunteers to ensure parishes are fully part of the process of bringing refugee families into their communities. They keep in touch with hundreds of Toronto families who are waiting to be reunited with their refugee relatives. They check back in on the hundreds of refugees who have already arrived and maintain contact with thousands more around the world waiting to exit their camp.
All this work stops for celebration each and every time a refugee steps through the sliding doors at Pearson and into their new life in Canada.
On Feb. 25 it was 30 refugees arriving on a flight — 11-and-a-half hours — from Istanbul, the end of a gruelling journey that started at the Krisan and Ampian refugee camps near the border between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
Over those hours their world transformed. In the refugee camp they fended off snakes that came up from swamp water that frequently invaded the camps. They feared the parasitic chiggers that would burrow between toenails and flesh. On reaching Toronto wearing old, odd and vastly inadequate winter coats, their first stop was the airport chapel where they prayed and sang in thanksgiving.
Waiting for them at the other end of a quiet car ride along Hwy. 401 was a fully furnished house the St. Anthony of Padua Parish refugee committee had secured and stocked with groceries, towels, bed linen and clothing for a family of eight.
Mark, Office for Refugees executive director, is immensely proud of the African refugees the Archdiocese of Toronto continues to aid in resettlement. On the same weekend that Canada surpassed its goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees, the Office for Refugees continues to serve a much wider world of refugees in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Which is not to say the office hasn’t been fully and completely part of the effort to bring Syrians out of the camps and into safety in Canada. Before Cardinal Thomas Collins launched Project Hope last September to bring 100 refugee families to Toronto, the Office for Refugees was on pace to start the process for about 200 refugees worldwide in 2015. For seven years the office has averaged between 100 and 200 new cases annually. By Dec. 31 the Office for Refugees had submitted paperwork for 2,300 individual refugees. Those 2,300 new cases are added to an inventory of about 1,500 cases currently on the books.
Volunteers and staff worked into the wee hours, through weekends and every holiday.
“We did our best, however it became clear that either we catch up with the logistics and human resources and everything or we will not be able to manage it,” said Mark.
So the Office for Refugees is hiring new staff and moving into new offices across the street from archdiocesan headquarters on Yonge Street in midtown Toronto.
Since it was launched as an archdiocesan department in 2009, the Office for Refugees has maintained a tradition of shoestring improvisation. Volunteers pay their own way on mission trips to refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa where they interview and select refugees who can be successfully sponsored. Invited to a United Nations conference on refugee policy in Amsterdam last month, as part of an official Canadian delegation, Mark arranged his lodgings through AirBNB. He couldn’t imagine paying Amsterdam hotel rates. Office for Refugee staffers avoid making long-distance phone calls. They use the free WhatsApp application on their cellphones.
“They definitely did carry over that grassroots approach with a Christian mission to help others,” said interim operations director John Ecker. “They were very successful doing that.”
Ecker has been added to the Office for Refugees to help the office grow.
“The archdiocese was keen to make sure they had all the advantages that other departments have as a department,” Ecker said.
Ecker has a history of working with non-profits and in government, helping turn ideals into a functioning organization. His most recent assignment was getting the Family of Faith campaign up and running for the Archdiocese of Toronto. With the Office of Refugees, Ecker is working with an organization whose ideals and idealism have been enough to get it over huge obstacles.
“They are demonstrating Gospel values every day,” said Ecker. “And in everything that they do. They are saving lives. They are making a huge difference for people who otherwise have no hope.”
Outreach worker Luciano Moro knows the truth of Ecker’s judgment because he came to Canada from South Sudan 16 years ago, a young war refugee sponsored by Catholics who wanted to make the world a little better. He was a volunteer with the Office for Refugees back when it was a small part of Catholic Crosscultural Services and became a staffer in 2009.
“In a way it was sort of paying it forward,” Moro said.
Moro visits parishes to explain refugee realities and the Catholic response.
“Few have the opportunity to tell it as I would,” he said. “Refugees are simply people, ordinary people, whose circumstances have changed in dramatic ways so that they have to start all over. But they need our help. They also need our understanding that they have dreams, they have hopes and also they deserve human dignity.”
More resources, a bigger office with more staff, better computers — all that’s nice but it doesn’t turn Moro’s crank.
“The work of refugees will not simply end tomorrow with the establishment or the growth of the office,” he said. “The more conflicts or situations where people are uprooted beyond our borders, the more the demand is for us to reach out and to help more people. That requires us to dig deep as a community and to reflect on how we can better be able to assist more people.”
Mark is convinced the 2,300 applications to sponsor refugees in 2015 will become the new normal. Toronto Catholics are on board. His new role becomes one of advocacy. He will have more time to engage with the federal government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he’s known and respected for his dedication to civic sponsorship and his thorough knowledge of the complicated system.
“I need to ensure that we raise the profile of this work. Reaching out can help more people to be involved in the program.”
Mark is unafraid of the political entanglements of advocacy work. If some would make refugee policy a Liberal or a Conservative cause, he’s uninterested. There’s another kind of politics that stands up for voiceless refugees and advocates for an open and accessible sponsorship system.
“We have to step up for our values, to ensure Catholic social teaching — our main guidance in our work — is really publicly emphasized. We have to be prepared to defend and to represent our value system — to make sure the Catholic voice, supportive or not supportive of politicians, is there when we talk about refugees and their lives.”