Settling Syrian refugees – the highs, the lows


by Patricia Paul-Carson

Even though settling Syrian refugees unsettled me, I value the experience.

Over the past two years of intense involvement with the settlement of seven refugee families through the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, there were times when I wanted to quit.

Government policies and practices created barriers to sponsorship, organizing volunteers into effective teams was a challenge and decisions about how best to help settle refugee families was an ongoing values clarification exercise. Sometimes our team bonded over an external threat to our newcomers’ success; other times, it felt like a dogfight.

But knowing that we provided a safe haven for close to 40 people in one of the best countries in the world gives me comfort.

But what took all the hard work?

Raising money was the least of our concerns. We started out expecting to sponsor one family and we quickly realized that we had enough money to sponsor three. We are also helping four other refugee families by co-sponsoring them with outside neighbourhood groups, and in one case, a family who needed an established organization to facilitate their application.

The joys of bureaucracy

While we were learning about mass refugee sponsorship on a micro level, the government was learning about it on a macro level and their decisions had a huge effect on our work. For example, in the spring of 2016 we had submitted applications for our neighbourhood groups to our pre-approved Sponsorship Agreement Holder, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC), but the government allocated the CUC only 15 applications. The CUC decided to submit applications from groups with the fewest volunteers and minimal access to community resources, which excluded ours, so we had to resubmit our applications using a more extensive format – a frustrating paper exercise that delayed our applications by a couple of months!

Another problem arose one evening, when the Immigration minister announced that those applications submitted by the end of the next day would be processed before year’s end. Groups across Canada stayed up all night completing their applications. Our neighbourhood groups heard about it the following morning and begged me to ensure their application was submitted before midnight. When I explained it was impossible, volunteers were in tears. The pressure created on groups by that announcement was both enormous and unnecessary.

Finding volunteers and getting organized

It seemed like a sensible choice to work through my congregation as I assumed it would be easy to find enough volunteers. Not so. Many volunteers came from outside the congregation. We had a small steering committee and separate teams for each family. Not only did we poll our congregation for help, we went to friends, neighbours and former colleagues. Anyone we knew! We needed about 15 volunteers per family because there is a lot of work to helping them settle when they know neither the languages nor culture of Canada. Many refugees have low education and come from low-income situations. Some have never used banks or dealt with bureaucracies. Others had medical issues that needed addressing immediately. And we needed volunteers who could and did quickly furnish an apartment with everything from pots to warm clothing.

Finding volunteers was only the beginning. We had to develop an organizational structure. The number of discussions about the best way of doing this was never ending. Even then we found ourselves stepping on one another’s toes, and dealing with hurt feelings. The issue was never that people didn’t want to do their bit. It was just that we all cared too much. Emotions often run very high the week the family arrives and some groups have a meltdown at this time.

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Syrian refugee children going to school

It has been a joy helping newcomers settle in our community. But it’s had its challenges too. We have dealt with domestic violence and mental health breakdowns. Surprisingly, those were not the most difficult issues. We looked for appropriate support in the community and ensured the families were cared for.

The more difficult issues involved the direction in which the families were headed.

One family received advice from their neighbours that if they decided to go on welfare, they should hide any savings from welfare authorities. Not only was this unethical, it could affect their chances of obtaining Canadian citizenship if they were caught. We had a discussion with the family about possible outcomes and that scamming the system was unacceptable. They heeded our advice and put savings into RESPs for their children’s education.

Like many newcomers, some of ours wanted to buy a car. Although all agreed that they had the right to make their own decisions, some volunteers thought that, because of limited budgets, we should not encourage them by going to used car dealers with them or providing driving lessons, while others wanted to do exactly that. Lively discussions ensued. Our newcomers have bought cars and are working hard to live on their budget.

One of the best things we did was to have a written agreement with each family about how we would operate during the year of sponsorship. One of the clauses in this agreement stipulated that they would not give any of the provided funds to anyone, including relatives back home. We discovered quickly how important this clause was because our families, like many newcomers, were under great pressure to send money to their relatives in the Middle East.

Yet, despite these ongoing challenges, I feel lucky to have had this experience. I learned about myself, valued the amazing contribution of team members and have benefitted from knowing courageous and open hearted newcomers whose families will soon be the backbone of Canada.

Patricia Paul-Carson is co-chair of the Syrian Refugee Group, First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa.

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