Peace Samuel holds a crucifix given as a gift from the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Archdiocese reaches out for helping hand

  • August 6, 2019

BANGKOK, Thailand -- For 63 families, the strangers from Toronto represented something they’ve lived without for years — hope.

Staff from the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto made the 19-hour flight across 13 time zones in mid-July on a mission to rescue Pakistani Christians stuck in a legal limbo after they fled persecution to arrive in a country that treats them as illegals.

The ORAT team spent a week conducting detailed interviews and came away confident they could rescue a significant number of these otherwise helpless refugees.

“Now what would make it even more successful, obviously, is if we can garner the support of other dioceses, other churches, across Canada to support the families that we are unable to support,” said ORAT executive director Deacon Rudy Ovcjak.

Ovcjak recognizes that in a world with over 70 million displaced people, more than 25 million of them refugees, it’s difficult for refugee advocates to know where to begin. ORAT has in the past helped resettle people from much bigger refugee populations in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. When he looks at the situation of Pakistani Christians in Thailand and Malaysia, however, he sees a refugee population that’s not getting much attention.

“It seems like very little has been done to address this problem,” he said. “So we felt the need to come out here and play the little part that we can.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and its culture of violent, fundamentalist politics won’t disappear because a few dozen families are in Canada. However, Ovcjak believes resettlement makes all the difference for people prevented from actually living their lives. In the case of Bangkok’s 1,500 Pakistani Christians, “It’s a very contained problem that is easily solvable,” he said. 

“It just requires will to do it on the part of Canadians, on the part of Canadian churches.”

As an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, ORAT is granted a set number of private refugee sponsorship opportunities each year. They have 16 slots available for Pakistani Christian refugees currently stranded in Bangkok. All ORAT has to do is find 16 Toronto parishes — or schools, or universities, or religious communities — willing to raise $16,000 to $60,000 and dedicate the volunteer hours to support a refugee family two years from now. For parishes in the archdiocese sponsoring a family just got easier thanks to an anonymous donor and Cardinal Thomas Collins’ solidarity with refugee Christians. Up to $500,000 has been made available via the donor and Project Hope funds controlled by Collins to subsidize parishes need ing financial help with sponsorship. 

For the remaining 47 families, Ovcjak will have to persuade other Sponsorship Agreement Holders, primarily other Catholic dioceses, to make their slots available and find parishes to raise money and volunteer.

Ovcjack describes it as “heartbreaking” to sit with these families, hear their stories of persecution in Pakistan, knowing ORAT can’t sponsor them all.

“We get to hear the tragic stories of the persecution and the suffering that they faced in Pakistan, the dilemma they face here in Thailand with no protection offered to them by the Thai government,” he said. “So we hear them; we see the anguish on their faces. We hear their stories all the while knowing that for some of them there’s not even the path forward to go through the private sponsorship program. That’s very difficult.”

Over the week of interviews, ORAT documented the stories, filled out the forms, cleared the way for the 63 families to be interviewed by Government of Canada staff from the refugee visa post in Singapore. 

For Jesuit Fr. Mick Kelly, just getting to the point of presenting cases to Canadian authorities represents a huge triumph for him and his team of refugee volunteers in Bangkok. Kelly and the Christian refugee community has come to see that they are in fact dependent on the kindness of strangers.

“The only way out of it that I’ve had is things like this — get in touch with those parts of the Church that are alert to the needs of migrants and start working with them,” he said. 

All week long, pre-selected refugee families showed up at the sort of hotel business centre for interviews with ORAT. They wore their best clothes and carried thick binders full of newspaper clippings, government documents, letters from pastors and friends to back up stories of imminent danger they faced before fleeing Pakistan. They kept their heads down as they walked through the hotel lobby, fearful of being pointed out to Thai police. Many found the back way into the hotel from the alley.

“When you’re desperate and have nothing going for you — as the vast majority of these people do — what keeps you going is the prospect that it may come to an end,” said Kelly. “What this week in Bangkok is doing is giving people an indication that it may come to an end.”

(Note: In the print edition of The Catholic Register the amount to sponsor a typical family was reported as $40,000 to $60,000. In the online edition this range has been expanded to encompass a broader range of possible refugees.)

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