Toronto parishes put words into action for refugees

  • September 4, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - With four months to go in 2009, Toronto parishes and religious orders have welcomed 45 per cent more refugees than they did in all of 2006. There will be five more landing in Toronto the second week of September.

The 53 refugees welcomed in the first eight months of 2009, the 72 sponsorship applications submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada , the 37 parishes and six religious orders actively sponsoring refugees are just numbers. Every number masks a story.

The Joannadis-Jajoo family’s story started in Baghdad, where before the 2003 American invasion the family was happily ensconced in the Christian community. In 2004 Antoine Joannidis was given a clear signal that Christian life in Baghdad was becoming too dangerous for his family. Men arrived at the brewery where Joannidis worked and declared production of alcoholic beverages unacceptable in an Islamic country. Before leaving, they set fire to the brewery.

Joannidis was on his way with his wife and three children to Amman, Jordan.

In Jordan, the family lived in limbo. It was illegal for Antoine to work, and all but impossible for him to leave the house unless accompanied by his wife. Police watched every move in the refugee community and wanted nothing better than an excuse to deport them back to Iraq.

Refugee office nears its limit


TORONTO - When Archbishop Thomas Collins asked Toronto’s priests in 2008 to consider getting their parishes involved in refugee sponsorship he also began a process to make it easier for parishes to take that step.

Over the last year Catholic Cross Cultural Services, the agency born out of parishes sponsoring Vietnamese boat people 30 years ago, was reorganized. It now houses the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto.

By October ORAT hopes to have in place a refugee sponsorship assurance fund to back up parishes who make the financial and legal commitment to help refugees settle in Canada. The fund would help out in emergencies with unexpected expenses.

“That’s crucial, having a central assurance fund,” said St. Luke’s parish lay pastoral assistant Natalie Doucet.

The fund would make it easier for parishes to take on higher risk cases — cases where refugees have experienced torture or are suffering post-traumatic stress — said St. Anthony of Padua pastor Fr. John Mullins.

“If there was that central assurance fund, we could make it more equitable and sponsor families that have no one here or refugees whose families cannot put the money in trust,” said Doucet.

ORAT is also reaching out to church partners in Syria, Ghana and Ivory Coast to speed up the process. Almost all refugee cases are first assessed and referred to Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In almost every case UNHCR resources are stretched to the limit.

ORAT has been in talks with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney about agreements that would allow church agencies to also refer cases for sponsorship by parishes and religious orders in Toronto, said Martin Mark, ORAT executive director. ORAT is already working at its limit. Last year it submitted 149 sponsorship applications.

Since it can take anywhere from 15 months to three years for the sponsored refugee to pass all of Citizenship and Immigration’s requirements for medical and security checks and more paperwork, most of last year’s 149 files are still active. Mark has slowed the rate of applications so that all the files get the attention they deserve.

Until the law changed in 2007, the children couldn’t attend school in Jordan. Franciscan Sisters provided some education to refugees, but it was frequently interrupted.

The family paid the rent and bought groceries with money sent from relatives in San Diego. They couldn’t go back to Iraq, but the only way they could get on with their lives was to get out of Jordan. In the second week of August Antoine, his wife Eman Jajoo, and their children Dany, Dyna and Dalya finally arrived in Canada.

Linda Raffin of the St. Anthony of Padua parish refugee committee in Brampton makes it very clear why they sponsored the Joannidis-Jajoo Family.

“Because we’re Christian,” she said. “If you follow the life of Christ, and you’re living a Christ-like life, you can’t ignore — whether they are Christians or people of other faiths — people who are being persecuted.”

“We have to look at Abraham, our father in faith. He was a refugee,” said St. Anthony’s pastor Fr. John Mullins.

Three weeks into life in Canada, the relief on Antoine’s face is obvious.

“Here, you have all the freedom you want,” he said through an interpreter.

Natalie Doucet, lay pastoral assistant at St. Luke’s parish in Thornhill, knows sponsoring refugees has added something essential to her parish.

“(Parishioners) are practising the Catholic social teachings, putting words into action,” she said. “The encyclicals aren’t just words on paper. They’re living them.” 

Five years ago St. Luke’s welcomed a Somali Muslim woman and her children fleeing the situation in Darfur. This summer it was Ameera Khasap, an Iraqi-Christian widow whose daughter lives near the parish.

Khasap hung on in Baghdad for two years after the American invasion, but life became more and more intolerable as the Christian community around her disappeared. However, in Jordan she almost died waiting for medical treatment for a stone which developed in a bile duct.

Her daughter Haifa Tawfiq and her husband, Arfan, in Canada wanted to sponsor her, but three years into new lives with their four sons, neither had a job or the money to do so. Tawfiq tried to persuade her own Orthodox church to help with the sponsorship, but the parish wasn’t set up to take on a joint sponsorship agreement.

When Doucet learned of Tawfiq’s troubles, she immediately suggested St. Luke’s could backstop a sponsorship agreement.

And things are looking up for Tawfiq’s family. Haifa’s husband, a pathologist, has landed a residency with the University Health Network and will soon be back to practising medicine. After going through a number of retraining programs, Tawfiq is more confident she will be teaching again soon — she lectured in chemistry at Baghdad’s University of Technology.

For pastor Fr. Bill Burns it’s natural that the parish is there to help its neighbours.

“We have a lot of Iraqi people and we were accommodating them for liturgical services,” said Burns. “They began to know who we are and began to ask if we would sponsor some of their relatives who were outside of Iraq.”

The Iraq war triggered the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War with two million Iraqis on the run. A large part of the exodus was the Iraqi Christian minority suddenly caught up in the anarchy and gang warfare of the country.

“(In Iraq) we used to live with other religions peacefully,” said Tawfiq. “We were free to do everything. You can go to work. You can go to clubs. You can wear whatever you want.”

But Tawfiq’s family didn’t abandon her modern, secular country. It abandoned them. In post-invasion Iraq Christian women can’t drive, can’t leave the house unless wearing a head scarf (hijab) and clothing that covers from neck to ankle.

Back at St. Anthony’s Mullins is grateful to Archbishop Thomas Collins for making refugee sponsorship a priority.

“The problem is this localism. We can get really sucked into serving ourselves at the parish with all the particular needs here. So, this opportunity now for the global to actually become local,” said Mullins. “It’s about welcoming. It’s not putting up walls. It’s the meeting at the border and drawing people into the life. That works on the level of our parish here.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.