Open Letter to Immigration Minister John McCallum

OTTAWA SOUTH COMMITTEE FOR REFUGEE SPONSORSHIP

 

Jan 28, 2016

Dear Minister McCallum:

First we would like to congratulate the government on its progress in the settlement of the Syrian refugees. We applaud the government’s leadership and the hard work of public servants throughout all of the associated departments. Also we recognize your personal leadership and commitment to the cause of resettling the refugees.

Our group, the Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship, is a Constituent Group of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa Sponsorship Agreement Holder, based at Trinity Anglican Church in Ottawa. We have successfully managed to settle one family of six Syrian refugees here in Ottawa. We have the resources to sponsor a second family if not a third at a later date. The experience for us has been enlightening. Our goal, just like that of the hundreds of similar groups across this country, is to see the family thrive in our society and become full contributing citizens to this country so they in turn can one day extend their hand to help on some future occasion.

The government’s success on the program has been rapid and not without hurdles along the way. Today we in the OSCRS would like to address the issue of the Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) and their settlement issues that appear to be far more challenging than those faced by private groups such as ours. As Virginia Johnson pointed on January 26 out in her Globe and Mail article, “How Canadians Can Step Up And Get Refugees Out Of Hotels”, there could be a role for private sponsors to help the GARs if the government were to find a way to open that door. Once opened I think Canadians will step up, as they always have, to help in the settlement process.

 

As you personally have mentioned time and again the issue is housing, more specifically affordable housing. The definition of “affordable” varies from community to community. In Ottawa the GARs do not have sufficient financial support to find suitable housing. As you are aware, Syrian family sizes are relatively large by Canadian standards and this places a burden on a housing market more geared to smaller family sizes. This is just one area where the private groups can help by providing sufficient financial assistance to top up the GAR support to land the families in good housing. Of course the private groups bring far more to the table than simply money.  We also provide ongoing continuous support for whatever problems families face, be it health, counselling, mentorship, child care, etc.

We are ready to help resolve this vexing issue in any way we can. To that end, we would welcome an opportunity to meet with your Office to pursue how best our Committee might do its part to contribute to a solution.

Yours truly,

Robert Taylor, Chair, Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship

 

The Rev. Arran Thorpe, Trinity Anglican Church

 

 

The family settles in

On behalf of the Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship we would like to thank everyone who helped out with generous donations to support the  family in their journey to Ottawa. Jehad, Nirmeen, and the four children (Abdullah, Mohamad, Zeid and Lyana) wanted us to send you their heartfelt thanks for everything that you have done to support them.

The family of six arrived in December 22, stayed temporarily with a community member and was moved into their new home just before the New Year. They are now settled in their three bedroom apartment that was completely furnished and outfitted through donations.

We have been overwhelmed by the support that has been provided to us. We received donations of clothes, furnishings, electronics and school supplies. If we put out a call for needed items, the community responded within hours offering whatever was needed to help to make their transition easier.

The children will start school this week and the parents will start ESL classes very soon. We have health, education, social support and many other committees to support them as they adjust to their new world over the coming months. They do have a long road ahead of them, but people’s kindness has made it just a little easier for them to get a head start.

We had a small gathering with members of the committee on the weekend (see photo) and both Jehad and Nirmeen spoke (through translators) of how they had lost hope of ever finding a better world for their family and how blessed they now feel to have been given the opportunity to start again with such great support from our community.

Home for the holidays

The long journey to a new home is almost over for Nirmeen, Mohamad, and their children  Mohamad, Abdullah, Zeid and Lyana. We received word on Friday, December 18 that they would be arriving in Ottawa Tuesday, December 22 — that’s tomorrow as of the moment of writing this blog.

The family arrived in Toronto Monday, December 21 and were scheduled to stay there overnight before flying to Ottawa.

They’ll travel on a commercial Air Canada flight between Toronto and Ottawa and will arrive in the public arrivals lounge at 3:16 p.m. Committee chair Bob Taylor will be there along with other committee members. Bob extends an open invitation to anyone who would like to come and participate in welcoming the family to Ottawa.

Although we have no photos of the family members, we’ll keep an eye out for two parents and four young children who look travel-weary and perhaps a little bewildered. Bob will have small Canadian flags on hand for people to wave, and is hoping to have a welcome sign prepared in Arabic.

Two vans with car-seats have been arranged, and volunteers will drive Nirmeen, Mohamad and the children to their temporary accommodations on Ossington Ave. There will be a welcome meal awaiting them, and the pantry is already stocked with  food supplies for the days to come.

Today marks the winter solstice — the turning point when the days begin to get longer and the nights begin to get shorter. May this day be the beginning of a time of light after a time of darkness for our sponsored Syrian refugee family.

Refugees on the CBC

By Michael Casey

OSCRS was invited to participate in the recent CBC Radio “United for Refugees” event, the 2015 version of the annual Project Give fundraiser. Although the final donation total remains a bit of a mystery it appears that the event has raised well in excess of $220,000. These funds are to be allocated to various activities supporting refugee settlement in Ottawa. We were pleased at the opportunity to activly participate as guests in the live audience of the very popular afternoon All In A Day program hosted by Alan Neal.

The program itself was filled with wonderful stories of refugees who had made their way to Canada and, after some struggle, had found it in their hearts to call this city their home. We all have benefited from what each had brought to our collective table.

The story of Canada is a story of how waves of refugees arrive here, struggle to find their place, grow to call this home and open their hearts and homes to the next wave of peoples who find their lives turned upside down and are driven to escape.

Whether you can trace your heritage back to, say the Irish who fled starvation in their homeland 170 years ago, or South East Asians who fled terror in leaking ships, or whoever, we all – save the First Nations people – came from somewhere else, often leaving under extreme duress. We are all refugees.

Many of the stories told were harrowing, like the plight of the 8 year old girl on a sinking ship off the coast of Viet Nam confronted by pirates stealing whatever riches they could. That girl, now a successful Ottawa woman full of life and fullsome with her support for this next wave of refugees. Another special story broadcast during the event was from our own Old Ottwa South barber Ali Sultan who escaped from Iraq. Ali is offering free haircuts to refugees.

We are blessed with these people who live amonst us. They inspire us to be better Canadians and what could be better than that?
—-

A week of fast-moving events

This week saw events move quickly, as the committee received word that our application to sponsor the family — mother Nirmeen; father Mohamad; sons Mohamad Abdullah, and Zeid; and daughter Lyana — has been officially approved by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

We should soon receive a Notice of Arrival, confirming the itinerary of the newcomer family. Usually, the Notice of Arrival comes about five days before the newcomers are expected to arrive on Canadian soil. It’s quite likely that Nirmeen, Mohamad and the children will arrive during the Christmas holidays, which could pose some logistical difficulties, as a number of key people will not be in town during that time.

Our committee chair and logistical planneur-en-chef, Bob Taylor, would be grateful if any bilingual Arabic-English speakers are able to help out as interpreters during the holidays. Likewise, anyone who has a van or other large vehicle, and would be willing to pick up the family at the airport, can contact bob at r_taylor@rogers.com.

On the housing front, Marc Rand has stepped up to offer temporary accommodation at his house on Ossington Avenue. Meanwhile, Michael Casey and Jennifer Graham have secured an option to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Vanier.

Clothes, furniture and other necessities are being gathered in anticipation of the family’s arrival. The list at the right of the page enumerates the items still needed, and we will do our best to keep it up-to-date. While Sarah Connor Gorber and her committee have been overwhelmed with people’s generous donations, she does ask people to please stick to the items on the list, as collecting and sorting the donations is a big job, and unneeded items will simply be donated onward.

A final note of thanks goes out to Sarah’s 11-year-old daughter Allison (pictured above) who employed her tech-savvy skills to build a Google-docs spreadsheet allowing volunteers to keep track of all the donations. Nice mitts, Allison!

Apartment Vacancies & Empty Nests

As 10,000 Syrian refugees prepare to make their way to Canada before the end of the year, the question in many people’s minds is: where will they live?

In our committee, the task of tackling that question has fallen to Marit Quist-Corbett. A retired ESL teacher with the Ottawa Carleton District Schoolboard, and an immigrant from Holland herself, Marit was motivated to join the refugee committee because of her two decades of experience in helping newcomers learn English and adapt to life in Canada.

She’s working on a tight timeline. This week, we were given the names of the six people in the family we’re sponsoring: mother Nirmeen; father Mohamad; sons Mohamad Abdullah, and Zeid; and daughter Lyana. We were also told they could be arriving in a matter of weeks.

It’s hard to know what accommodation will best suit the family. One the one hand, Marit has been in touch with the owner of an apartment in Old Ottawa South, who is offering the first month’s rent for free. The rent for the rest of the year would be covered by the Canadian government and the sponsorship committee; but following that, the family will pay out of their own pockets. Old Ottawa South is an expensive neighbourhood — does it make sense to enter into this arrangement?

On the other hand, some empty nesters have stepped forward offering to welcome the family into their home for the first few months while they get settled. This would mean less privacy, but potentially more support. And it still leaves the question of long term living accommodations up in the air.

The good news is that we have options, and it seems certain that the family will have some place to stay when they arrive. For Marit, it’s mainly a question of finding a place where the family can be safe and comfortable while they get over the initial culture shock of coming to Canada.

The Human Element of the refugee crisis

By Imam Mohamad Jebara

It’s easy to overlook the human element when overwhelmed by masses struggling to cross borders.

Syria was not born yesterday. Syrians are descendants of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, with Damascus continuously inhabited for thousands of years. It was on the road to Damascus that Paul of Tarsus would revolutionize Christianity as we know it. Home to countless religious denominations, Syria boasted the presence of ancient Christian and Jewish sects. Maimonides endorsed the Aleppo Codex, a great testament to the heritage of Syrian Jews.

It was in Damascus that the polymath and contributor to the field of hydraulics and piston design Al-Jazari worked. Syrians have been contributing members of American society; both the ice creme cone and burger bun were contributed by Syrian migrants in the 19th century. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was of Syrian descent.

Syria to the region is akin to China to Canada; Syria supplied much of the region’s produce and affordable clothing. Syria’s subsidization of food made it affordable for refugees coming from regions where the price of essential food and shelter was crippling.

Until recently, Syria had been the nucleus of asylum in the Middle East. Each time Lebanon and Iraq were destabilized, many found refuge in Syria, with neither tedious procedures as prerequisites nor visa requirements.

As the main haven for the region’s asylum seekers, Syria was home to millions of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, and Lebanon. Comparable to most conflicts, the first to leave are those not native to the land. In reality, it is not a Syrian refugee crisis — rather, a major regional crisis.

In fact, among those most affected by the conflict in Syria are Syrian-born Palestinians. Unwelcome in most countries, many formerly prosperous in Syria are now living under inhumane conditions in crowded camps.

The Syrian people are well known in the region as hard-working and hospitable. Most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are working, though in most cases for less than $5 per day doing arduous jobs like construction and farming.

Though we, as Canadians, are placing demands on our government to contribute to the resettlement of refugees, I believe that wealthy nations in the Middle East must also step forward and do their part in fulfillment of the ancient call to love one’s neighbour.

The powerhouses of wealth in the region, though quick to supply the ideological funding for subverting insurgents, equipping combatants, and instigating sectarian abhorrence via ultraconservative clerics, have contributed little to no support to those most directly affected by the conflict.

Unfortunately, terminologies, rather than human needs, lead perspectives on issues. The “positive” connotation of “refugee” and “negative” connotation of “migrant” seems to sway public opinion.

I have had the misfortune of experiencing war first-hand, twice. As a young child, later as an adult, I experienced air raids, carnage, and destruction. I recall the first year after coming to Canada and living near the airport, feeling perplexing anxiety each time a plane passed above, always anticipating a raid.

In 2006, I was in Lebanon, having been trapped for the entire duration of the war. In fact, I was on the last ship leaving Beirut the day before the ceasefire. I remember feeling so proud of Canada when our government brought us home.

Religious communities have been quite active in raising awareness and doing their part. On Oct. 18, before the political race, faith leaders in Ottawa we will be cycling to raise funds for housing units being prepared for refugees.

Around the world, trillions of dollars are spent on war each year. How much better would the world be had such funds been reallocated for development?

Mohamad Jebara is Chief Imam and resident scholar at the Cordova Spiritual Education Center in Ottawa. This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

It takes a community (to welcome a family)

pledgesSomewhere in Lebanon, a Syrian refugee couple with four young children is waiting to come to Ottawa. They might be filling out paperwork at this very moment. Certainly, paperwork is one of the things occupying Robert Taylor, a steering committee member of the Old Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship. He and the five other steering committee members are busy filling out forms and pulling together resources to make sure the community is ready to welcome the refugee family this winter.

We don’t know much about the family yet — not even their names. We do know that the husband and wife have three boys — two six-year-olds and a five-year-old — as well as a two-year-old girl. We know that they’ve been interviewed by the Canadian visa office in Beirut, Lebanon, and cleared to come to Canada. We know that they speak Arabic, but don’t speak either English or French. We can assume that they’ll need some support as they settle in to life in Canada, and that’s where the Old Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship comes in.

When the Committee originally formed in the spring of 2015, the bureaucratic process of sponsoring a refugee was much more onerous. To help speed the process, the committee decided to work through the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa (which had already obtained pre-clearance from the Canadian government) even though the committee itself is ecumenical and includes members from the Anglican and United Churches, Quakers, and Muslims, as well as people with no religious affiliation. Even working through the diocese, Robert was told he could expect to spend 100 hours on paperwork.

But since the new government has committed to expediting the processing of Syrian refugees, the paperwork has been cut down, and Robert says it’s quite straightforward. Once transportation logistics are worked out, he expects the family to arrive early in the new year.

Through the process known as “Blended Visa Office Referral” the committee will be responsible for half the costs of necessities for the family’s first year in Ottawa — including housing, clothing, food and transport — while the federal government will be responsible for the other half. The total costs for the year are expected to be around $40,000, and the committee has raised about $45,000, thanks to the generosity of residents of Old Ottawa South.

Meanwhile, the search is on for a place for the family to live — ideally an apartment in Old Ottawa South, at least for the first little while. There are warm winter clothes to be collected and volunteer translators to be recruited. Lots of people from Old Ottawa South are pitching in to help and the committee is always looking for more people to get involved. (Robert can be reached at r_taylor (at) rogers.com and you can also find the committee on Facebook )

Follow this blog as we trace the journey of volunteers in our neighbourhood coming together with a Syrian family to pursue a new life in Canada.