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refugees at the airport

Refugee Assistance

The Beginning

In the late 1970s the world was spellbound by images of South East Asian people crowded into rickety boats on the high seas desperately seeking refuge on safer shores. Stories soon emerged of the unsafe and crowded conditions of these boats, the brutal and cruel actions of pirates who captured, robbed and murdered the passengers, and the unscrupulous actions of traffickers. These images haunted and tore at the conscience of Canadians and we were moved to act.

In a report "Making Room for Strangers," written to the MCC Canada's Executive Committee, Larry Kehler wrote:

"When the MCC (Canada) Board met in Calgary January 19-20, 1979, it received an update which expressed dark anxieties about the 'build-up of what appears to be a disastrous refugee situation off the coasts of Viety and Malyasia'."

It seemed imperative to act quickly remembering our own Mennonite history and in particular the "historic parallel where 50,000 Mennonites 'stormed the gates of Moscow seeking exit visas,' the Executive put in place a motion which would pave the way for MCC and its constituent groups to respond to the desperate situations of the South East Asian people. The motion allowed MCC constituent groups to assist with the integration of the refugees "in ways and places to be negotiated with the government."

a refugee family in the early years.

On March 5, 1979, only six weeks after this decision, an "umbrella agreement" was signed with the Federal Government to allow constituent churches to sponsor refugees under MCC Canada's name. The agreement allowed churches to sponsor refugees whom they could name, and those that would be referred through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Government. These sponsored refugees would be above those sponsored by the Government. It was to be the first of many such agreements to be signed by a private organization with the Government of Canada. And the response from the provinces and the churches was in Kehler's words "immediate and strong." The report showed that between March 5, 1979 and December 31, 1980 approximately 393 refugees from Laos and Vietnam arrived in Saskatchewan, as well as 11 from Ethiopia, for a total of 404 people. Since that time private sponsor groups across Canada have sponsored approximately 200,000 plus people. MCC constituent groups have played a significant role in assisting refugees begin a new life in Canada.

The Movement Continues

The Baw family

As the South East Asian crisis began to ease, MCC constituent groups were sponsoring Ethiopians who were deeply affected by the violence and human rights abuses in that country. Then came the Central American crisis and the Civil War in El Salvador. For 12 years, both sides terrorized and targeted civilians. Stories of "death squad" threats and violent attacks on individuals and villages were rampant. Many thousands simply "disappeared." Many more thousands of El Salvadorans made their way to the Canadian border to claim refugee status, while thousands were also sponsored by our constituency with the help of our partners in Central America and the U.S.

Sponsorship was now high on the priority list of many constituent groups and churches. Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras also produced victims of human rights abuses, and many were offered a hope and a chance to rebuild shattered lives. The world was changing and more and more countries were reporting horrific details of genocide and human rights abuses. There seemed to be no reprieve, no time to catch our breath between the sponsorship needs of countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone. But our constituent groups remained faithful and active and responded to our pleas for help and we are grateful for their support. Often church representatives would stop in and ask, "do you have any refugees who need help?" It allowed MCC to continue to work towards offering protection to as many refugees as we could.

The break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing territorial conflict saw an estimated 100,000 people killed. It was a war characterized by ethnic cleansing and mass rapes and had a devastating effect on its citizens. Families were torn apart by the conflict because of their ethnicity; women were victimized en mass. From April, 1992 to December of 1995 over 2 million people were displaced from their homes, and many thousands fled to other countries. Canada established a 3/9 program whereby private sponsors would receive 3 months of financial support from the Government, while the sponsors would provide the remaining 9 months. Saskatchewan churches sponsored many families not only in the four cities in Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Moose Jaw and Regina) but in many small centres throughout the province through MCC. Many of these refugees remain in the sponsoring communities or communities nearby.

Soon came the Kosovo War. In 1999 Canada airlifted over 7,000 refugees from Kosovo to Gagetown, N.B. (2,271 to be fast tracked if they had relatives in Canada, and over 5,000 to come through the Humanitarian program). This would be the first time Canada would participate in an emergency evacuation and the effects of moving people directly from a war situation to Canada had ripple effects on both the families and the communities who would become involved with the project. From Gagetown, families were destined to different regions in Canada. Saskatchewan received 180 people.

This was sponsorship with a difference. They were provided with two years of Government financial assistance, and the opportunity to apply for permanent residence. If they chose, they could return to Kosovo during that two year period and Canada would assist them in their return. No settlement agencies anywhere in the country received additional funding for services, and the private sponsorship community was asked to find appropriate sponsors and facilitate the resettlement of all 5,000. MCC, along with members of the Saskatoon Refugee Coalition accepted the role of facilitators and with Government funding hired two Coordinators in the south and central region of the province. Many of the families from Kosovo were sponsored through MCC and its constituent groups.

With help from smaller service agencies like Global Gathering Place, sponsors were guided and supported throughout the initial settlement period until the major settlement service agencies were finally provided with funds to assist in the settlement process of these refugees. Many families returned to Kosovo during the two periods, but some remained. It was an exhausting four months, but it was also exciting to see new initiatives sprout across our province, one of which was the sponsor support network gatherings in Saskatoon where sponsors can get appropriate information and learn from each other.

Other major refugee movements were refugees from Myanmar (Karen) and the Colombia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees appealed to resettlement countries to assist in resettling Karen refugees who had been languishing in remote mountainous refugee camps along the Thailand border. Again, MCC churches and whole communities responded quickly and sponsored many of these refugees. In Rosthern alone they have settled 4 families for a total of 27 people. This was a time limited program but sponsors were offered the opportunity to request a blended program similar to that of the Bosnian 3/9 program. Despite the ending of the program, Karen families are still seeking resettlement for their family members who for a variety of reasons were not included in the initial program.

the Gomez family

The conflict in Colombia created another challenge for MCC and other groups working with refugees. Stories of violence throughout the country uprooted many citizens from their homes. Many simply disappeared, or were killed/caught between the different factions. Whole villages and towns were destroyed and forced to move to different locations. Lives were turned upside down. Many sought refuge in larger centres such as Bogota. Canada had included Colombia on its Source Country list and sponsors were allowed to sponsor these displaced people directly from Colombia instead of having to leave the country to go elsewhere. In 2012, the Source Country designation was repealed. Displaced people from Colombia must now be sponsored from outside of their country and only if they have received the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Moving Forward

There are many populations which have needed the support of private sponsors throughout the program's history. It is difficult to note all of these in this short article. However, with conflict again at its peak in Iraq and Syria it seems that refugees and their need for protection will be with us for some time yet.

There have been so many changes to the Private Sponsorship Program throughout the years - changes in processing of refugee sponsorship applications. Cases that used to take 6-8 months and up to a maximum 15 months, now take 4 – 6 years. During this time refugees experience more violence, loss and separation of family members, poverty and human rights abuses, and of course much despair. Legislative and regulatory changes also create huge bureaucratic hurdles for agencies who wish to assist refugees, and for the refugees themselves. Limits on the numbers of refugees that can be identified by the sponsors have severely restricted the option of reuniting families in a timely way.

We have learned much throughout our journey with this program. We have created partnerships and taken opportunity to work together with each other in areas of training, support and sharing resources. Organizations such as the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, the NGO-Government Committee on the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, the Sponsor Agreement Holder Association and the Canadian Council for Refugees, as well as local groups like the Saskatoon Refugee Coalition, have made a significant impact on our ability to dialogue and influence the Government and successes of the program. While MCC continues to have private sponsorship as a major thrust, MCC also continues to play a significant role around these tables.

A Highlight

We have tried to stay involved with activities related to refugees/newcomers in Saskatchewan, perhaps one of the most notable highlights in our history has been our involvement in the formation of the Global Gathering Place.

In 1997 at an MCC Saskatchewan Board of Directors Visioning gathering, staff were asked if they had access to adequate resources what they would like to see happen. The Refugee Program staff person talked about the creation of a safe place where newcomers could go to have a cup of coffee and conversation to ease the loneliness and stress of resettlement. A few days later, at one of our local churches, the Coordinator was approached and challenged to move forward with the idea and a promise of help from that congregation. Several weeks later the Coordinator, along with local settlement service workers, and volunteers, from the community, joined in a discussion of establishing a drop-in centre for newcomers with faith communities in Saskatoon. The vision was to assist, in particular, those newcomers who appeared to be falling through the cracks and were ineligible for regular settlement services. The idea quickly caught on and the Global Gathering Place found its beginning in 1998 with a small budget and financial support from our local Citizenship and Immigration Canada Office.

With a box of toys for children, and a box filled with coffee and other supplies, the Steering Committee invited Belma Podrug, a volunteer on the original Steering Committee to become the first Coordinator. On the day we opened we had 30 newcomers enjoy a cup of coffee and the friendship and support of volunteers.

Over the next few years, under MCC's umbrella, the Global Gathering Place sought its own non-profit and charitable status and was soon an independent organization. At its 2014 annual meeting, Global Gathering Place Executive Director, Belma Podrug, reported that they had assisted 1,800 new clients (2067 people overall), during the year, and had 147 volunteers registered. Under Belma's leadership, the Global Gathering Place continues to be a valuable and major resource for creative and innovative settlement services in our community.

Lessons Learned

There are so many lessons learned throughout the years through the stories of refugees and their sponsors. Stories which have made us laugh and cry. We have learned about the lasting impacts of torture and trauma and how resettlement is impacted by people's individual experiences; that no two people respond in the same way. We have heard stories of faith, hope and resilience. We have learned valuable lessons from our sponsorships that went well, and from those that went less well. We have celebrated with families whose experiences have had good outcomes, participated in many, many of citizenship ceremonies, and cried with those whose outcomes have been disappointing and disheartening. We have learned to take the good with the bad, and know that people are people everywhere. We have learned much about our own attitudes and the impact of racism, and we continue to look to address the root causes that force people out of their homelands. We have learned that that we cannot solve the world's problems, but by supporting one family at a time we can make a difference if even for just that one family. We have learned to listen more carefully to what God calls us to do and to offer hope and a chance at a safer and better life.

- by Elaine Harder



Back to MCCS's 50th Anniversary - index Or; Jan: IVEP | Feb: Thrift Shop Movement | Mar: Canadian Foodgrains Bank| Apr: Ten Thousand Villages |
May: Restorative Justice | June: Relief Sale | July: Refugee Assistance |
Aug: Aboriginal Neighbours (Historical overview) | Sept: Governance | Oct: Music Gala



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