Ruth and Pat Lee invited members of Kanata Community Christian Reformed Church in Ottawa, Ont., to their home on two Sunday evenings in Nov. 2015 to eat dinner and discuss the plight of refugees fleeing the civil war raging across Syria.
With the military of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad pitted against rebel factions, the conflict had begun in 2011. By 2015, hundreds of thousands of people had died, and millions of refugees had fled the fighting and were flooding into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries.
“We had what I like to refer to as hamburger meetings, where we treated people from our church to freshly barbequed burgers and presented some facts about the refugees and what it might cost to help a family,” said Ruth Lee.
“As a committee, we have been blessed by this experience. It has been an amazing, humbling experience to be able to be part of this huge transition with them.”
People responded favorably, wanting to help, and so a committee formed. They took pledges, which added up to what they thought they would need to bring a family to Ontario.
Meanwhile, they chose to work with World Renew, and, at the organization’s recommendation, they decided to go through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) Program, which matches refugees identified for resettlement by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with private sponsors in Canada.
World Renew has been promoting the BVOR program in recent weeks, following Refugee Sundaty on April 22.
“We are trying to get word out about this program to churches that have never sponsored a refugee family but might be interested in doing so,” said Rebecca Walker, a refugee coordinator for World Renew in Canada.
Unlike the lengthy process in which some churches seek to resettle particular refugee families, the BVOR procedure is shorter because important steps have already been completed: churches can welcome a family within months of applying, given that the family has already been approved by the UN and is ready to travel.
In addition, the BVOR process is cost-shared between the government of Canada and private sponsors, often churches.
World Renew has been instrumental in assisting churches throughout the country in setting up BVOR sponsorships. In this way, World Renew’s refugee office has supported many churches from various denominations.
Sponsoring refugees can be a challenge for churches — and yet there are great rewards — and the stories from these experiences reflect what congregations can do, if they have patience and persistence, to address in a small way one of the most tragic situations — the refugee crisis — confronting the world today.
Pat Lee of Kanata CRC said that once they gathered their resources and decided to go forward, the process moved quickly with World Renew’s help. A husband and wife and their two children flew from Lebanon via Toronto on June 9, 2016.
Everything was so new for the family, and they were exhausted when they landed, especially since Ramadan had started and they were fasting during the day.
But the church had connected with the Kanata Muslim Association, which organized a meal plan, said Lee, “so they would not have to cook meals right away, and we had an exciting few days of orientation. We helped them shop, open a bank account, apply for health insurance cards, etc.”
Along the way, the Kanata team realized that the family had been given erroneous information while waiting to travel to a new country.
For example, said Lee, “they thought they would be able to rush straight to Quebec City to join an uncle who was there. They had also heard someone was going to give them a lot of money when they arrived here.”
Though the family was disappointed when they realized certain things weren’t going to happen, church members stood by and reassured them that we were here to look after them and support them financially as they settled in.
It is now 23 months since the family arrived. The couple now have three children; their youngest was born five months after they arrived.
Members of Langley Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in the Vancouver, B.C. area share a cup of coffee and
some donuts from Tim Horton’s with their sponsored family
Church members helped the father practice for road tests so that he could get his driver’s license. He also found work, and the oldest child started kindergarten. In addition, the family moved from a second-floor apartment to a rented townhouse.
Among the many positives, there are a few negatives, including having to deal with government red tape.
Still, it has been a great experience, and the church is hoping to look into sponsoring another family soon.
“We just have to replenish our sponsorship group,” said Lee. “And, to be honest, we are still being called upon to help our first refugee family from time to time. As we have grown quite fond of them, that is fine with us.”
Langley Immanuel Christian Reformed Church, Vancouver, B.C.
Langley Immanuel Christian Reformed Church took advantage of the BVOR program by helping to settle a young couple with two young boys and an older brother who is unable to hear and talk.
“After much prayer and discussion, our group felt God calling us to sponsor a family from Iraq” with the help of World Renew, said Maggie Kunst, a refugee team member from Langley Immanuel. “They came quickly. When I got the [notification by] email, we learned they were arriving in 10 days.”
Soon after the Iraqi family arrived last year, the husband and wife started English classes. And the husband and older brother are now working.
Soon after arrival, the brother began attending sign-language classes at Vancouver Community College. The classes have given him the chance to meet with other people who are deaf and to make friends.
“The brother came to Canada with some signing skills but was really quite isolated, as the only people he could communicate with were his family. So going to these classes was amazing,” said Kunst.
Now the brother has learned to navigate transit from Langley to Vancouver. “His world has definitely changed for all kinds of reasons,” she said.
Though Muslim, the family members have also been coming to Langley Immanuel CRC.
“We made clear to them that we would love and support them regardless of whether they chose to come to church — and they were happy to know that this was not an expectation,” said Kunst.
“But they have found a community among us; they’ve experienced the love of our church and consider us friends and family.”
Moving ahead, the process of finding their way in a new homeland will be a challenge, but the church has become an important part of their community. Showing the love of Christ to this family who fled chaos in Iraq has been crucial for everyone involved.
“Our sponsorship team and our church have been very blessed by this experience,” said Kunst. “We have seen how God has put this together, and each person on our team can share a different story of impact. We continue to pray that our refugee family will find happiness and start a new life here in Canada.”
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Karen Breukelman tells of how a group of Christian Reformed congregations in the Thunder Bay, Ont., area began an organization, the Hands to Help Committee, in April 2016 to work with World Renew to welcome a refugee family to the Thunder Bay community.
Once again, two worlds separated by thousands of miles and a wealth of experiences met. And variations of this story are being told across Canada in touching and inspirational ways because of the BVOR program.
After much preparation, Breukelman said, the refugee family arrived in Thunder Bay on Mar. 29, 2017. They traveled from Lebanon, where they had been refugees for almost five years, having had to flee Syria with only what they could carry.
The family came to town with their suitcases and $7,800 in travel/medical loans.
“Although they had no income for the first nine months they were in Canada, they were expected to pay $108 per month for the next six years — and that was hard,” Breukelman said.
However, Hands to Help was there to support them in their first year in Canada.
“The first months were a whirlwind of government appointments, doctor visits, immunizations, and dental appointments,” she said.
The children started school, and the parents began daily language training at the local multicultural association. They were encouraged to continue language lessons for at least eight months to be ready to find a job.
“The husband is now working full-time at Iron Range Bus Lines and is happy with his new job. The whole family is excited to welcome their new baby in early June,” she said.
An excellent cook, the wife and mother often sends food home with committee members to show her appreciation for the help their family has received.
“The family likes to entertain and are great hosts to new friends, teachers from school, and our families. The children are doing well at school and are now fluent in French and can communicate quite well in English too,” said Breukelman.
With their days of war and displacement in the past, the children enjoy having their friends over to visit. They also enjoy skating, sledding, and swimming.
“As a committee, we have been blessed by this experience. It has been an amazing, humbling experience to be able to be part of this huge transition with them.
“With the help of all who have supported this effort – financially, by prayer, or with donations of household items – we have been able to show God’s love to this family in need,” said Breukelman.