Syrian refugees cross into Turkey to escape the fighting in their homeland. Sponsor groups trying to get such refugees into Canada are becoming increasingly frustrated by bureaucratic red tape. Photo by Michael Swan

Sponsors frustrated by delays keeping Mideast refugees out of Canada’s reach

  • September 17, 2016

TORONTO – In just 100 days beginning last Sept. 8, the Archdiocese of Toronto raised $3.7 million and formed 105 volunteer groups in the hope of sponsoring at least 100 refugee families from the Middle East. Those sponsorship committees actually launched 154 applications to bring refugee families to Canada. A year later most of those refugee families are still living in limbo in Lebanon and Jordan while their paperwork piles up in Winnipeg.

With a big push from Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins, Project Hope helped parishes across southern Ontario channel their outrage after the photo of tiny Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach swept across newspaper front pages and social media feeds in August of 2015. But a year later Project Hope sponsorship groups have been able to greet just 44 refugee families, 133 individuals, at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. That leaves 110 Project Hope sponsorship cases, representing 274 individuals, still waiting for their ticket to Canada.

The sponsorship committee at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in midtown Toronto launched three separate sponsorships and was ready to greet its first family as early as last Christmas. The committee made special contingency plans to ensure somebody would be available to greet the first family of seven if they arrived on Christmas Day.

“We were all dressed up and ready to dance in December. We were wondering what happened to our date,” said committee chair Larry Pick.

Nine months later the committee still hasn’t been summoned to the airport for any one of the three families the parish had hoped to sponsor.

The first of those families let it be known they thought they had a better chance of going to Australia. That was enough for the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto and the parish to decide around New Year’s to concentrate efforts elsewhere.

The second family actually did go to Australia in April.

“After seven months with Canada not having anyone read the file, (Australia) scooped the family,” Pick told The Catholic Register.

Parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help were disappointed, but naturally happy the family of four finally had a home. Still, it left a bad taste.

“It’s a disappointment because it’s a reflection of some hardening of the arteries in our system,” said Pick.

That’s left Pick’s brigade waiting for a brother and sister pair from Iraq’s Nineveh province — chased out of their historic homeland by Islamic State in 2014 and now languishing in Lebanon. The refugees have had their physicals and interviews and Our Lady of Perpetual Help has been told to expect them within the next eight weeks.

For Collins, such delays are an unsatisfying result.

“We also must reiterate our message to the government to expedite the arrival of those who have been left behind not only in the Middle East but in so many other areas of conflict. We believe much more can and should be done,” Collins said in a release issued on the anniversary of Project Hope’s launch.

Toronto Ward 5 Councillor Justin Di Ciano can attest to the deep well of goodwill that Project Hope tapped last year. In a short period he personally raised $230,000 which the young politician handed over to the Archdiocese of Toronto for refugee sponsorship. When people asked Di Ciano how they could help, he didn’t hesitate to refer them to ORAT.

“There were a lot of people who reached out to me saying they were finding it difficult to sponsor a family, to donate. There were groups set up so fast. They were met with red tape,” said Di Ciano. “This is one of the great humanitarian crises of our time… The most important thing is to get families here.”

Frustration at Our Lady of Perpetual Help is nothing compared to the toll perpetual waiting is taking on Behnam Tobea’s family living as refugees in Zahle, about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Beirut. Tobea has been trying to get his brothers and their families out since June 10, 2014, the day Islamic State forces swept into his hometown of Bakhdida, 30 minutes drive from downtown Mosul, with their convert-or-die decree.

Tobea came to Canada as a refugee eight years ago and is now a Canadian citizen. A single man working two jobs as a barber, Tobea didn’t have the connections or the cash to mount a sponsorship on his own. But his employer at a downtown salon knew some powerful, wealthy Torontonians. By last September there was a “Group of Five” sponsorship group that included Order of Canada laureate and author Joy Kogawa, Annick Press founder Anne Millyard, real estate investor David Walsh and Senator Nancy Ruth.

But even that kind of clout hasn’t been able to get Tobea’s family out of the Winnipeg filing cabinet.

Six months into the process, on Feb. 8, a helpful Citizenship and Immigration employee was able to write Walsh an e-mail reporting her department was then “working on files from August/September 2015.”

“Everyone is so frustrated. I hear it all across the land,” Senator Ruth said in an e-mail.

“There seems to be systemic blockages happening at places within the immigration department,” said Walsh. “We need to ask for transparency.”

The Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship claims the pace is picking up for Syrian refugees.

“We are expecting an increase in arrivals to begin in mid-September,” an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson told The Catholic Register.

Immigration expects 6,000 more government-assisted and blended visa Syrian refugees to arrive between mid-September and the end of December, plus an unspecified number of privately sponsored refugees whose cases have already been finalized.

Back in May, Immigration sent 40 people to the Middle East, mainly Beirut, to push through the paper work. The government has promised to process all private sponsorship applications for Syrian refugees submitted before March 31 by the end of this year or early in 2017. Syrian applications were put on a fast track temporarily.

But the Syrian fast track has come to an end, according to Immigration officials.

“CPO-W (Centralized Processing Office in Winnipeg) has returned to normal processing, which means that all private sponsorship applications are processed in the order in which they are received,” spokesperson Nancy Chan wrote in an e-mail. “Syrian applications are no longer prioritized as there are other refugee populations that sponsors wish to help and those applications also require processing.”

For private sponsors, such as parish sponsorship committees, and for refugees who don’t happen to be Syrian, favouring Syrians over the past 10 months didn’t really help, said Pick.

“In fact, the border between Syria and Iraq is just a dotted line in the sand,” he said. “Friends of mine who had organized (sponsorship) groups in January of this year chose from the Syrian list and the family arrived, were in place, by April. The Iraqi Christians? Boy, talk about a back seat... These are the Christians sent out of Nineveh at the point of a gun.”

Canadian policy that favours Syrians along with Canadian media that ignores Iraq drives Tobea mad.

“Why this delay for Iraqis? Why are you paying more attention to Syrians and the Iraqis they put them to the side?” he asks. “There is a war in Iraq. There is a war in Syria. There is ISIS in Iraq. There is ISIS in Syria. So what’s the difference between Iraq and Syria? I just want to know about that… My family lost everything, just like those from Syria.”

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