Photo by Evan Boudreau

Archdiocese of Toronto looking to sponsor 100 Syrian refugee families

By 
  • September 8, 2015

TORONTO - One hundred more families, three-million more dollars and an infinite well of compassion will be the Archdiocese of Toronto’s response to photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s tiny, lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach.

As interest in Syria’s 3.5 million refugees has spiked with front page pictures and television coverage of the Kurdi family, as well as thousands of refugees struggling through Hungary and Greece on their way to Germany and Western Europe, Cardinal Thomas Collins has decided to add to the more than 600 refugee cases Toronto Catholics have already taken on this year.

At $30,000 to sponsor a family of four, the archdiocese’s Office for Refugees estimates a $3-million appeal should be enough to sponsor 100 new cases. Project Hope has already gathered $500,000 in pledges. The archdiocese has set itself a deadline of 100 days to reach its goal. If the archdiocese collects more than $3 million it will dedicate the extra funds to sponsoring even more refugees, said Martin Mark, Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto executive director.

“Our policy is we never say no,” Mark said. “If needed, we can increase the capacity.”

Mark will travel to the Middle East in the coming weeks to identify more families for sponsorship.

“We need to find the compassion that is is within each one of us,” said Bishop Vincent Nguyen, himself a Vietnamese refugee who came to Canada in the 1980s along with 60,000 boat people. “A culture of compassion and mercy will make our country stronger.”

The stories and images of refugees adrift on the Mediterranean or slipping their children under razor wire are an occasion for the whole world to feel shame, said Collins.

“I hope it has stopped us in our tracks,” said Toronto’s archbishop.

The Middle East refugee problem has been growing for years. While interest has spiked in recent weeks and made refugees an issue in Canada’s federal election, people of faith need a longer attention span, said Collins.

“Let us not politicize this issue, but rather take appropriate steps,” he said. “People not politics.”

In recent years 160 Toronto parishes have been involved in refugee sponsorship, with some of them sponsoring three or four families. Since the Office of Refugees was set up in 2009, the archdiocese has sponsored more than 2,500 individuals.

While Toronto’s Catholics have particular concern for Christians who have suffered at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other extremist militias, the archdiocese will continue to prioritize refugees by need and not religion, said Collins.

While money to help a family start a new life in Canada is important, the most important thing parishes can offer refugees is “love and friendship,” the cardinal said. Collins highlighted the volunteers who drive refugees to doctors’ appointments, help them register their children for school and make social calls on their new neighbours.

Project Hope comes just as the Church worldwide embarks on a Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, Collins remarked.

“May this initiative on the eve of the Year of Mercy spark a particular culture of care, love and mercy in our community,” Collins said.
“Let us put our faith into action.”

While processing times have fallen dramatically for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to as little as nine months, the Office for Refugees still sees wait times of three to five years for refugees from Africa, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, said Mark. Mark hopes the example of best practices from the Middle East will eventually spread throughout the Canadian visa and refugee system.

Nguyen rejected any argument that Canada can’t repeat the numbers from the 1980s, when churches and other community groups forced Ottawa to set up the private sponsorship system and quickly brought thousands of refugees into their communities.

“Any time there are persons in need, we need to reach out to persons in need,” Nguyen said.

Canada has so far accepted 2,374 Syrian refugees. Ottawa has pledged to bring in 11,300 over a span of three years, most of them to be sponsored by churches and other groups. On the campaign trail the Conservatives have promised to bring 10,000 more refugees into Canada. The New Democrats are promising to settle 9,000 government-sponsored refugees per year for four years, in addition to privately sponsored refugees. The Liberals want to settle 25,000 refugees by the end of 2016.

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