Welcoming refugees in the diocese of Saskatoon

Recently-arrived Milka and Efrem welcomed by their co-sponsor (l-r) part of a private refugee sponsorship at St. Philip Neri Parish in Saskatoon. (Photo by Jan Bigland-Pritchard)
The diocesan Office of Migration is one of the ministries supported by gifts to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal.

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News

As the year draws to a close, the diocesan Office of Migration continues to assist parishes and small groups to undertake private sponsorship of refugees fleeing dangerous and desperate situations around the world.

A number of arrivals in recent weeks have been moments of welcome good news for Migration Office coordinator Jan Bigland-Pritchard and the sponsorship groups involved, but the dire situation facing so many others is an ongoing concern.

Jan Bigland-Pritchard of the Office of Migration (second from left) with recently-arrrived refugees Milka and Efrem and their co-sponsor. (Photo submitted)

“Please pray,” says Bigland-Pritchard, pointing especially to the increasing violence of the civil war in Ethiopia, the recent military coup in Sudan, and now the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

“We have many sponsored refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan,” she says. “Things are very uncertain and dangerous right now – especially for refugees who are Tigrayan, who are particularly at risk. There has been some recent good news about Sudan, but still plenty of uncertainty about how things will go now.”

As a designated Sponsorship Agreement Holder under the federal government system of private sponsorship, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, through its Migration Office, applies for a limited number of sponsorships available, working closely with constituent groups – parishes or other approved small groups – to facilitate the sometimes-daunting process.

This year, 37 applications were originally approved for the diocese, and others have now been added because of the dire situations facing those forced to flee from northern Ethiopia’s civil war and from Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over.

Among the groups undertaking private sponsorships through the diocesan Office of Migration, raising funds and accompanying newcomers when they arrive are Catholic parishes – including Holy Family, Holy Spirit, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saints-Martyrs-Canadiens, St. Francis Xavier, St Mary, St Paul and St. Philip Neri in the city of Saskatoon – as well as Orthodox, Anglican and Baptist congregations, and community groups.

A number of staff members from E.D. Feehan Catholic high school in Saskatoon are part of the latest team to step forward to undertake a sponsorship – urgently seeking to help the family of an E.D. Feehan adult student who are fleeing their home country after a sudden and brutal change of government.  The student’s brother, sister-in-law and their two small children are currently in hiding in a neighbouring country, in danger of being deported back home, where they would face execution because of the brother’s work for the previous government and the wife’s work counselling abused women. The E.D. Feehan school community has been raising funds through concession and candy sales, and a Go Fund Me page has been established to raise the $30,500 needed in order to sponsor a family and ensure their support by the community for a year. Additional funds are also needed to assist the family with food and lodging in the meantime.

Related Article – E.D. Feehan school works to save refugee family (LINK)

Alem (right) and her elder daughter stand next to their collapsed tent in the Tenedba camp in Sudan. (Submitted photo – used with permission)

Bigland-Pritchard also provided an update about the diocese’s sponsorship of two Tigrayan families living in refugee camps in Sudan.

“We were overwhelmed and delighted by the response of so many people to help Alem and her family, living in tent camps in Sudan,” said Bigland-Pritchard. The Christ Church Anglican congregation stepped up to be the sponsorship group/settlement team, with the refugee sponsorship fully funded by donations from the Catholic community.

Funds raised were enough to permit sponsorship of a second family – Alem’s brother Gaitom, his wife and four children, who are refugees from the same civil war in Ethiopia, presently living in a tent in another refugee camp in Sudan. St. Paul Co-Cathedral has stepped up to be the sponsorship group for that second family.

“We hoped to get enough support to bring one family of four, and we were overwhelmed because within three months we had enough funds to bring two families, totalling 10 people, thanks to the generous hearts of people in the diocese,” reported Bigland-Pritchard.

A family affected by the Tigray conflict who are being sponsored to come to Saskatoon: Gaitom (upper, left) and Medhin (upper, centre) and their four children. (Submitted photos, used with permission)

Even with everything in place, it can still take months and even years before sponsored refugees actually arrive in Canada. COVID-19 did not shut down the application process, but it slowed down processing “a huge amount,” says Bigland-Pritchard. Canada now has a backlog of some 70,000 applications with “people drumming their fingers, scratching a living, watching their backs, waiting to come.”

In many cases, sponsored refugees are in dire circumstances, with some sponsorship groups having to raise additional funds to send support to families while they wait – money for food, medicine and other necessities to keep them alive until they can get here. “Refugees are much less able to support themselves while they wait, COVID lockdowns have meant an end to most casual work,” said Bigland-Pritchard. Donors willing to give even $10 a month for the “emergency living allowance” needed by families being sponsored through the diocese would help make this sustainable, she noted.  She reports that at a recent diocesan Administration Day, diocesan staff stepped up to fund emergency living allowances for four more people.

Donations to the sponsorship funds of individual families do not receive a tax receipt, however, donations that support the Office of Migration’s work in general are eligible for a tax receipt – this includes support provided for the work of the office through the Bishop’s Annual Appeal.

Bigland-Pritchard is hoping to establish a diocesan refugee sponsorship “seed fund,” which could be used to assist in sponsorships when needed by a parish or group, to help fund sponsorships where needs are great but resources are few.

In the face of daunting world-wide need, with some 82.4 million people forcibly displaced, with about 26 million of those designated as refugees (having crossed a border), approximately 40,000 refugees are re-settled in Canada every year. As a SAH, the diocese applies to sponsor between 30 and 50 people a year.

“Welcoming people when they arrive here is the best,” she says, listing a number of recent arrivals, with a number of others anticipated in the next month.

“We do this because of the gospel,” says Bigland-Pritchard. “We do this because Jesus was a refugee. We do this for love of neighbour,  to answer the command to welcome the stranger.”

As for how to help, Bigland-Pritchard has a range of suggestions.

“Pray. Pray regularly for a named refugee family,” she says. “Join a parish sponsorship group; give to your parish refugee fund, to the diocesan sponsorship seed fund or the Bishop’s Annual Appeal. Donate good quality furniture and household goods. Use your muscles and your truck, if you have one, to help set up a newcomer’s home. Smile at newcomers on the street or in the store, and say a few kind words. Get to know them.”

She adds: “Newcomers are so lonely, they are far away from home, they don’t know the rules, they know that everyone looks at them funny because they’re different, so you could take it upon yourself to just smile and say ‘How are you doing, it is a nice day’ …that simple kindness could make a world of difference for that person.”

Support the Office of Migration through the Bishop’s Annual Appealdscf.ca/baa  

How to donate to the “seed fund” or the “emergency living allowance” for sponsored families waiting to get in to Canada:  Contact Dr. Jan Bigland-Pritchard in the Migration Office for further details, by emailing migration@rcdos.ca


Bishop’s Annual Appeal  – Ministry Spotlight on the Office of Migration: