Refugee sponsorship

Posted in Canadian life, Politics at 7:39 pm by ducky

I lead a group which is sponsoring a refugee family.  Enough people have asked me how that works that I am compiling the answers here.

Legal Background

In Canada, there are three ways refugees come into the country:

  • Government sponsored, where the federal government provides all of the financial support for the first year and contracts with organizations called settlement agencies to provide the logistical support and hopefully some emotional support as well.  In BC, the main settlement agencies are MOSAIC and ISSBC.
  • Blended Visa Office Referral, where a charitable organization (frequently churches) bring in a family who they don’t know.  The organization — called a Sponsorship Agreement Holder or SAH — can do this by themselves or they can partner with a group of individuals (the sponsorship group), but the onus of vetting the sponsorship group and the legal liability lies with the SAH.
    • The SAH periodically gets an anonymized list of families approved for resettlement in Canada.  The entries usually give the family size, the ages of the children, sometimes the ages of the parents, their nationality, where they are now, if they have any special needs, and if there is a particular area they would like to go to.  (For example, they might have a cousin in Calgary or might really want to live near the ocean.)  The SAH communicates to the sponsorship group what families are available, and the sponsorship group will indicate if they are interested in sponsoring one of the family on the list.  The SAH will then communicate with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC); IRCC decides who “gets” the family if more than one SAH expressed interest.
    • The SAH is legally responsible for 100% of the logistical and emotional support and slightly more than half of the financial support.
    • If there is a sponsorship group, the sponsorship group is morally responsible for what the SAH is legally responsible for.
    • The government provides 50% of the income support but not the start-up costs — furniture, staples, cleaning supplies, clothes, etc.
  • Privately sponsored, where a group of at least five Canadian citizens and permanent residents (a “Group of Five”)  OR a SAH enter into a legal agreement to bring in a family of known people.   Under this sponsorship type, the group is 100% responsible for financial, logistical, and emotional support for the family for one year.  (I call this the “let’s bring in grandma” sponsorship.)


Emotional and Logistical Support

I have mentioned emotional and logistical support multiple times.  What do I mean by that?

As an example, since we got the news of when they were going to arrive, our team has:

  • arranged temporary housing;
  • gotten them a phone and cell plan;
  • stocked their temporary housing with some food;
  • found a permanent apartment;
  • helped them fill out a massive number of forms (including the childcare tax credit and the medical services plan enrollment form);
  • helped them get Social Insurance Numbers (analogous to the US Social Security Number);
  • helped them open a bank account;
  • gotten them winter coats;
  • escorted the father to a medical appointment;
  • showed them how to use their debit cards to buy transit cards;
  • took them shopping for essentials (like underwear!);
  • helped them phone their friends back in the camps;
  • drove them to the local branch of their church;
  • did a lot of talking, orienting, and many other details too minor to call out explicitly.

In the next few days, we will:

  • co-sign the lease on their apartment;
  • move donated furniture from at least four different places into the apartment;
  • help them buy a small amount of furniture;
  • help them buy groceries and cleaning supplies;
  • help them register their child for school;
  • help them register for English classes;
  • show them how to use public transit;
  • help them get library cards;
  • help them get to eye and dental exams.

Longer-term, we will check in periodically to make sure they are adjusting well and give help as needed (e.g. to help mediate disputes or help them find trauma counseling if required), and help them find jobs.

Our particular experience

At the height of the publicity about the civil war in Syria, in late 2015, there was a huge outpouring of support for Syrian refugees.  I was not immune, and posted quietly on Facebook that I was thinking of sponsoring a family and immediately got a huge response.  Some people pledged money but couldn’t pledge time (because they lived elsewhere and/or had other obligations); some people pledged both.

I researched what was required and discovered that, because we didn’t know anybody personally, BVOR looked like the way to go.  I looked through the list of SAHs and found that the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) was a SAH that I thought would be easy for me to work with, so I started working with the Unitarian Church of Vancouver (UCV)’s Refugee Committee.

I had to prove to the UCV Refugee Committee that we were trustworthy, including routing at least 2/3 of the required funds to UCV before they would advise CUC to accept us.  (We put 100% of the amount, which helped show we were trustworthy.)  We also had to fill out some forms for CUC.

Unfortunately, by the time we got our act together in 2016, the Canadian government had let in as many refugees (45,000) as it had decided it was going to let in that year.  In 2017, the government set the BVOR quota very low, reserving most of the spots for private sponsorships, which were mostly for family members of the Syrians who arrived in 2015 and 2016.

(In mid-2017, I happened to be standing next to a TV in a deli where some MP was getting interviewed.  She said, “The number one question I get asked when I go back to my riding is, ‘Where are my Syrian refugees?'”  So we were not the only team waiting.)

2018 was a new year with new quotas, however.  Furthermore, the rest of the world had reminded Canada that Syria wasn’t the only place where things were bad.  So the BVOR list started getting populated again with families from different places.  There still weren’t a lot, but there were some.

So while in 2016 we planned on sponsoring a Syrian family of four, in January 2018 when we spotted an Eritrean family of three, we requested a match with them.  The government confirmed the match, and we sent in our paperwork on 30 Jan 2018.  On 2 Mar 2018, we got word that they would arrive on 7 Mar 2018.  Wheeee!  It was a bit of a scramble.

“Our” family

I don’t want to say much about the family we are sponsoring because there are privacy/security concerns and because refugees are in a very vulnerable position, not knowing the country, culture, or language.

I think I can disclose that the family had been in a camp in country X for EIGHT years.  (I am not clear on the details yet, but I think they might have been in a camp in country Y for a few years.)  They were not allowed to leave the camp, so their child had NO memory of anything except that camp.  There also were no TV or movies in the camp, so he didn’t even have any visual images of other places.  I can’t even imagine what it was like for him to see grassy fields and forests and snow-covered mountains and airplanes and stoplights and microwave ovens.

Mom and Dad don’t produce much English, but they can understand some English.  My husband has run errands with them with no translator, and by speaking slowly, directly, and simply, he can communicate.

Green Hills Welcoming Committee

Our team needed to have a name so that UCV could keep track of it as an entity, and we chose “Green Hills Welcoming Committee”.

Our time-donating team originally had six people on it.  One dropped out because of health issues; one dropped out due to logistical issues.  One husband has become more involved, and I picked up two team members from the UCV Refugee committee (including a former Eritrean refugee, who has contributed an enormous amount).

I have to say, we have an awesome team.  We have worked very well together, encouraged each other, trusted each other, and come through for each other.  We also have spread the load out so that no one person is overwhelmed.

  • Person A has an infant, so is limited in how much she can do hands-on.  She’s our researcher.  She figured out which forms we needed and filled out as much as possible before the family got here (and documented everything she found).  She’s made calls to figure out what we need to do to get the child enrolled in school and the parents enrolled in language classes.
  • Person B and Person C are hosting them in their house.  They have been taking care of hospitality things: feeding them, making them feel welcome, entertaining the child, etc.
  • Person D, the former refugee, has been doing the translating and introducing them to the local community.  (For example, he went to church with them.)   He’s also been doing the lion’s share of ferrying them from one place to another and helped a lot in the housing search.
  • Person E has been doing the bulk of the housing search, with significant help from Person D.
  • Person F has been doing a lot of the helping and coaching for things involving bureaucracy.  Person A got the forms ready and Person D can translate, but Person F is the one who has done the follow-through and gotten the forms signed and in the mail, and negotiated with the bureaucrats.   He’s also taken the family on errands when Person D wasn’t available.
  • Person G — the treasurer of the UCV refugee committee — has been the advisor.  She’s always been there to give advice on how to handle things or explain how something has to be done.

The timing is also really really fortunate: only one team member has a day job.  One has a night job, one is retired, one is on maternity leave, and three are between jobs/contracts.  (Myself, I got laid off on 15 Feb.)

So far, so good.