By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News
The first sponsored refugees to arrive in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon since the COVID-19 shutdown are settling in after a successful quarantine period, a group of parish and diocesan leaders heard during a report presented at an online diocesan Administration Day Oct. 1 and 3.
Jan Bigland-Pritchard, the coordinator of the diocesan Office of Migration, reported that the family arrived in September. The often onerous and drawn-out process of private refugee sponsorship has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and so have the situations faced by refugees around the world, she noted.
Bigland-Pritchard began her report with the “why” of private refugee sponsorship for people of faith. “Basically, it starts with Jesus,” she said. “Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a refugee in Egypt when he was a child… We also bring in refugees because Jesus tells us in Matthew, Chapter 25, when talking about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger: ‘as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’”
Welcoming the stranger has always been a ministry for Christians, however, diocesan and parish involvement in the process of private sponsorship of refugees also goes back decades, beginning some 40 years when the then-new process was launched by the federal government to welcome refugees from southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).
“We are proud to be a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the federal government, which gives us the right to bring in somewhere between 30 and 50 refugees a year,” said Bigland-Pritchard. “Currently we have seven Catholic parishes in the diocese with active sponsorships, plus two Ukrainian Catholic parishes from the Eparchy collaborating on a sponsorship, and several sponsorships with two Orthodox parishes.”
This current Office of Migration active caseload of 122 people (with two babies also on the way), is in addition to 17 people who have just recently “graduated” from their 12 months of sponsorship. “It was a boom year last year,” she said.
This active caseload for the diocesan Office of Migration includes refugees who are already in Saskatoon and still in sponsorship, and those who have yet to arrive: 30 people applied for in 2020, 37 from 2019, 30 from 2018, and eight from 2017 who are still waiting for their cases to be resolved.
The average time from when a parish agrees to sponsor a refugee or refugee family until the refugees arrive is between 18 months and 2.5 years, she described. “COVID-19 realities are also causing some additional delays and uncertainties.”
During her presentation, Bigland-Pritchard provided a brief snapshot of some of the people that the diocese is assisting as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the help of local church refugee committees. Names and details are withheld to protect their privacy – and in some cases, their safety:
- A grandmother in her 60s from an African country which is being torn apart by ethnic violence, is waiting to arrive, sponsored by two local parishes: “Most of her children are dead or missing, and she is raising three little grandchildren on her own,” described Bigland-Pritchard. Her daughter in Saskatoon is part of the sponsorship team. Recently having moved from a refugee camp for needed medical treatment, the grandmother and her grandchildren are now facing increased costs for food where they are now living, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saskatoon sponsorship group is now sending her a monthly sum to assist with those costs. “She writes to us regularly expressing her gratitude to God and to the parish, and looking forward to the time when she can meet us in person.”
- A Catholic teacher from Syria who came to Canada as a refugee after fleeing the war: His other family members were already here, sponsored by a parish in Saskatoon, but they had little hope that their youngest child would be able to join them. “Wonderfully, he did manage to get out of Syria and was sheltered by a religious community in Lebanon, and he arrived in February of this year,” reported Bigland-Pritchard. “He is already working, plus taking online classes through Saskatchewan Polytechnic to improve his already good English. He is actively seeking ways to serve others in his new home town.”
- A young Orthodox man who fled compulsory military service in an African country with his brother: “The boys fled… but were kidnapped and they disappeared. Their family in Canada could not reach them for a long time.” This young man got free, but his brother is still missing and feared dead. “His family in Saskatoon is now desperate to get him to safety.”
- A young Catholic woman, who was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married to a Muslim man who sought revenge on her family for another issue: Facing blasphemy charges and physical attacks, she and her family have fled their home country and are waiting to leave the dangerous situation that they are now living in. She “is grateful to have the hope of a future in Canada, but she is struggling with the boredom and uncertainty of the long wait until that dream can come true. So many of our sponsored refugees are having to spend years in limbo, waiting for the processes to work out.” The Saskatoon parish that is sponsoring the young woman and her family is also eager for the wait to end, added Bigland-Pritchard
- A mother, father and four children who spent a long time as refugees in an African country: A local parish has sponsored the family in partnership with a relative in Saskatoon and they are nearing the end of their 12-month sponsorship. “Dad is working full-time at a job with health benefits, his English is good, and the kids are all in school. They have their own rented home, they drive a car and they are expecting another baby.”
Bigland-Pritchard also provided some facts and figures about the global refugee situation, with the numbers of people who are forcibly displaced now at levels not seen since the end of World War II. “Just under 80 million people – or one per cent of the world’s entire population – have been forced to flee their homes,” she said.
“Most move within their own countries, but 26 million of that 80 million have had to cross a national border, and they are the ones that have become officially refugees,” she said.
“Some will eventually be able to go home. Some will be allowed to settle down in their country of refuge. But for about 1.5 million people, re-settlement to a third country is needed, and numbers are rising. Sadly there is only one resettlement place for every 20 refugees who need it,” Bigland-Pritchard said.
“Canada now leads the world in terms of refugee resettlement numbers, but that only translates into between 20,000 and 30,000 arrivals in any one year. And of those refugees that Canada welcomes, about two-thirds now come through the private sponsorship of refugees program of which our diocese is part,” she said.
In the past 5 years, the top six countries from which Canada received refugees were:
- Syria (73.500)
- Eritrea (20,445)
- Iraq (16,440)
- Afghanistan (9,095)
- DRC Congo (6,645)
- Somalia (6,405)
Other significant refugee-producing countries include Ethiopia, Pakistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Myanmar (Burma) and Sudan.
How to help
“As a way of modelling God’s equal love for all peoples, I believe it is important that our diocese should sponsor refugees from a wide variety of countries,” noted Bigland-Pritchard.
She also offered practical suggestions for how to help.
“If you have a desire to help refugees, there is a place for you in our work, whatever your circumstances,” she stressed, pointing out:
- “If you have money but not time, there is a sponsorship group that could use your assistance.
- “If you have time but not money, I can introduce you to a settlement team that needs your help.
- “If you have ‘the gift of the gab,’ we need people simply to talk regularly one-on-one with newcomers so they can practice their English. (This can be done online)
- “If you are ‘a prayer warrior,’ there is a list of a few refugee families to hold up in prayer regularly.
- “If your parish would like to do something for refugees but your location or your numbers prevent you from considering a full sponsorship, I can help you partner with a parish that is already sponsoring and could use your help.”
For more information about these ideas or other inquiries about refugee sponsorship, contact: email@example.com