Joshua is a member of one of the 65 Pakistani families looking for a new home in Canada. The families are hiding out in Bangkok after fleeing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto has made a pledge to sponsor 18 of the families and has sent word to other dioceses across Canada appealing for them to offer sponsorships. Photo by Michael Swan

Canadians respond to refugees’ plight

By 
  • September 25, 2019

Catholics from coast to coast are rallying to answer a call to help resettle Christian Pakistani refugees stuck in Bangkok.

At least eight dioceses have pledged to raise money and gather volunteers to give a new Canadian home to up to 65 families eligible for resettlement. 

The pledges of support come in response to a mission trip by the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto to Bangkok to vet candidates for resettlement. That trip spurred a Catholic Register series about the community of Pakistanis in the Thai capital on the run from their country’s harsh blasphemy laws.

“When their suffering is brought to (Canadian Catholics’) attention, as was done through The Catholic Register, people want to respond,” said Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto director Deacon Rudy Ovcjak. “You can’t help but be moved by the suffering of this community — to know not only their suffering in Pakistan but their ongoing suffering in Bangkok.”

As a major sponsorship agreement holder with the federal government, the Archdiocese of Toronto has pledged to sponsor 18 of the 65 verified refugee families. But Toronto has also heard from refugee sponsorship officials and parishes in the dioceses of Montreal, Grouard-McLennan (northwestern Alberta), Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax and Peterborough.

Ovcjak expected that number to increase following the Sept. 23-27 Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops annual plenary meetings in Cornwall, Ont. A letter appealing for sponsorship help has gone out to every bishop in Canada from the CCCB and Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins planned to address the issue with his fellow bishops.

The case for sponsoring the Pakistanis rests on their suffering, said Ovcjak.

“They’re hunted down by the Thai Immigration Police and placed into hugely overcrowded detention centres. And there they stay,” Ovcjak said. 

“Their only remedy out of that is two choices — either go back to Pakistan where the likely prospect of death awaits you, or you hope for assistance from societies in the West to resettle them. Many of them have been languishing in those detention centres for years on end.”

Antoinette Godbout, refugee sponsorship co-ordinator with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, said her organization has pledged to sponsor three families.

“When we hear about a group that is being persecuted and also not noticed — not being recognized by other governments, by media, by in general world attention — I feel extra compassion and inspiration to reach out to those people,” she said.

Godbout hopes that additional families will be sponsored after Bishop William McGrattan returns from the CCCB plenary. The ORAT mission trip to vet refugee applications, along with a continuing relationship with refugee advocates in Bangkok, gives Godbout extra confidence in taking on these cases.

“To have all that work done (by ORAT) and not to respond and help in their work is, for me, not doing my job,” Godbout said.

The Archdiocese of Montreal can’t resettle any more refugees in Quebec, but they still hope to finance the resettlement of one or two families in Toronto.

“We want to help,” said Alessandra Santopadre, refugee resettlement manager with the Archdiocese of Montreal. 

Santopadre and her boss have agreed they can finance one or two families if a Toronto parish will take on the volunteer work necessary to find them apartments, enroll children in school, hook them up with doctors and assist with job searches. She’s just waiting for the final go-ahead from Montreal’s bishops after the CCCB plenary.

Quebec’s separate refugee resettlement program is backlogged with thousands of unprocessed cases. Santopadre is waiting for over 700 cases to be processed and put on a plane before she can resume submitting new applications for the Archdiocese of Montreal.

“The old adage of many hands make light work — together, all the dioceses working together, we can help significantly address the problem of this community (of refugees) in Bangkok,” said Ovcjak. “This has been a forgotten community, by and large.”

Any Catholic seeking to help Bangkok’s Pakistani Christians to move on with their lives should begin by raising the issue with their parish pastor, Ovcjak said.

“Pastors can talk with their bishop and say, ‘What can we as a community do?’ ” said Ovcjack. “The next step is to reach out to our office. We can provide them with profiles of the families and they can select among a handful of profiles. If they want to select one family, we will give them four families to choose from.”

In Toronto, up to $500,000 has been set aside to assist parishes that may not have the fund-raising capacity to sponsor a family and cover the rent and upkeep through its first year in Canada.

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