Rami Kaai, third from left, leads a team of volunteers at Thornhill’s Jesus the King parish bringing refugee families to Canada. Photo coutesy of Hikmat Dandan

Thornhill parish beacon of hope for Mideast refugees

  • November 26, 2015

THORNHILL, ONT. - Every day Rami Kaai receives at least 50 phone calls from Christian refugees in the Middle East who plead for his help in coming to Canada.

They call him with desperate stories from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and other nearby countries, where Kaai’s parish has become known as a Canadian safe haven from war and persecution.

“When they tell us the story, you can’t believe it,” said Kaai. “Some of the families, they cross the (Syria-Lebanon) border at night and they don’t know how, with very little clothes.”

Kaai leads the very active refugee sponsorship committee at Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Church in Thornhill, Ont., north of Toronto.

Christian refugees from across the Middle East are reaching out to the parish because word has spread that the parish’s Knights of Columbus council can help them start a new life in Canada.

Kaai, financial secretary of the local Knights council, has heard hundreds of stories about Islamic extremists storming Christian towns, going door-to-door and threatening Christian families if they don’t leave Syria.

He hears these stories every day. Most are from Syrian Christians who are caught between warring factions in their nation’s civil war. They have fled their homes and seek refuge in local churches and refugee communities in Lebanon and other nearby countries.

“Most of the Christians in Syria have mid-income. They don’t have a lot of savings,” said Kaai. “Without the assistance through the churches, they would die or otherwise go back to the country. Most of the people, they go back.”

Word has spread among the communities that Kaai and Jesus the King’s Knights are working to bring people to Canada for a fresh start. The parish is well known for its charitable efforts in Iraq and Syria. Its Knights of Columbus council is founder of two organizations, FoodforSyria.org and IAmIraqiIAmChristian.org. Both projects work with churches and refugee communities to provide supplies and financial support to displaced Christians.

Jesus the King is the only parish in Canada to hold Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) status. With SAH status, Kaai and the refugee sponsorship committee can work with refugees to arrange security and medical checks and put together a refugee profile request for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Jesus the King acquired its SAH status, with the help of the Office of Refugees in the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT), in December 2014. Since then it has helped sponsor and resettle 38 refugee families from Syria, Iraq and many surrounding areas.

Kaai said the committee is currently working on about 100 more refugee request files.

Pastor Fr. Ibrahim El-Haddad said acquiring SAH status was very important to the parish because the migrant crisis has always been a great concern for the people in the community. It has also reduced the wait for refugees from nine months to a year to between four and six months.

“Our church is from the Middle East. Our countries abroad they are very in need,” said El-Haddad. “Many families from Syria have relatives here. We can help them because they have support here.”

As the civil war in Syria and its surrounding areas grew more violent, the parish community grew more and more concerned for relatives at home.

“It is very sad to see what has been happening in the 21st century,” said El-Haddad. “Most of these countries in the Middle East are... holy places where our Lord Jesus and the Apostles walked and preached. Unfortunately, it changed to the land of fighting, killing and persecution of mainly Christians in the area.”

With what little money these families have, they find a way to acquire a cellphone or access to Internet. They contact Kaai using messaging applications, such as Viber or WhatsApp, and keep in contact as they open an application process with Jesus the King.

“First of all, we ask them for their e-mail,” said Kaai. “Then, we can send all the applications to them. To help them, we can send the application in Arabic... 10 per cent they know English and 90 per cent don’t know English.”

Kaai knows that even with a team of five to seven volunteers at Jesus the King, they cannot help everyone. A priority has been to support parishioners looking to bring their families and friends to a safe home in Canada. His group has worked closely with ORAT, hosting workshops and information seminars, not only for their church community but for surrounding Eastern churches in the Toronto area.

The parish has a special bank account for the SAH committee. Kaai said the funding is not the greatest need however. The parish needs more volunteers and co-sponsors for their refugee case files. The parish pay for the first six months of each refugee family resettled, but they also need private sponsors to support the family for another six months.

“Behind ORAT is the archdiocese and there are a lot of resources there, but for small churches like us, we can’t increase the number of applications,” said Kaai.

Not all refugee families it helps are connected to parishioners at Jesus the King. But El-Haddad said it is important that once they arrive in Canada, they feel like they are a part of the community.

“Some of these immigrants are already part of the choir and the church because they already know the tunes. They are the same ones they sing back home,” said El- Haddad. “This is consoling their psychology... because they still feel at home and they are getting accustomed to the Canadian tradition.”

Despite the committee’s limited resources, Kaai said the parish is welcoming new refugee families every two to three months. Meeting the families at Pearson International Airport makes all the work worthwhile.

“They are crying and they pray,” said Kaai. “They say, ‘Thank you Jesus the King. Thank you Canada, we are now safe.’ But some they are still shaking at night.”

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