Saifan Istefan

King’s is helping to lift refugees out of poverty

By  Rachel Gannon, Youth Speak News
  • October 16, 2015

LONDON, ONT. - A little boy with long curly hair bounces around the worship space of Labatt Hall as Sunday Mass begins at King’s University College. Two-year old Zenos Istefan finds a seat next to the priest in the sanctuary. His family has only been in Canada since August, yet he has already made Canada and the worship space his home.

Zenos and his parents, Saifan and Talar Istefan, came to Canada through a refugee sponsorship program that King’s University College and Christ the King University parish launched last fall. King’s has since sponsored four student refugees, but the Istafans are the first family the campus community has sponsored.

“Canada is good. It has been difficult. E v e r y o n e here has been helping,” Saifan said in broken English. “Life back in Turkey is very bad. If anyone knows you are a Christian that can be a problem. Even more in Iraq and even more in Syria.”

Saifan, who is originally from Iraq, fled to Syria when the crisis in the Middle East began. It was in Syria where he met his wife, Talar. Together, they fled once more. This time to Turkey where Zenos was born.

Within a few days of landing in Canada, Saifan was eager to find work. He has now begun working part-time at a community centre in London. Talar has begun English as a Second Language classes.

The sponsorship program not only seeks to help settle. Members of the parish community have been helped the newcomers find work, receive medical attention and integrate into the community. King’s owns the property in which the family is living.

“Now that we have brought people to a place of safety, we need to ensure that their spiritual needs are met, their emotional needs are met and that they are able to contribute back to the communities that have welcomed them,” said Fr. Michael Béchard, chaplain at King’s University College and the organizer of the refugee sponsorship program.

Béchard first approached Christ the King University parish last October about starting a refugee sponsorship program. The goal was to help just one refugee, a project that would cost about $20,000. Within six weeks about $60,000 was raised. To date, the project has raised close to $100,000, allowing the King’s community to welcome seven individuals to Canada.

In addition to Istefan’s family, the program has sponsored three young people from Rwanda whose family members were killed in the genocide and one man from Iraq.

While Saifan and a young man are focusing on part-time studies and work, the three Rwandans are studying at King’s and Brescia University College, also on the Western University campus in London.

In Béchard’s appeal to the community, he emphasized the importance of welcoming anyone no matter their faith background or family situation.

The individuals who have moved to Canada are not only of different Christian traditions, but the community has also welcomed one Muslim man.
Members of the parish and university community have welcomed the sponsored individuals and family into their homes to share meals and assist them in learning English. They have provided fellowship and invited them to join in social justice initiatives to give back to the community.

“King’s is now looking into sponsoring Talar’s mother, father and brother to come to Canada from Syria,” said Béchard. “When we seek to sponsor an intact family we are not only doing something to lift people out of poverty and war, we’re also doing something that allows them to maintain dignity, and sacramentally, that has been a gift to them. There’s a witness that a family provides that is complementary but different than what a single person provides... Jesus has come to us in these people.”

The King’s refugee initiative is a joint sponsorship program with the Canadian government through which the government provides funding for the first six months an individual is here and then the King’s community will help provide after those six months.

(Gannon, 19, is a second-year Catholic Studies student at King’s University College in London, Ont.)

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