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Canadian churches take up cause of five Guantánamo detainees

The churches have applied to help the men – who cannot be safely returned home – resettle as refugees in Canada.

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But those involved in selecting the five detainees are confident of their choices. "These men certainly are no risk to anyone and should be productive members of Canadian society," says J. Wells Dixon, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. "I'd encourage [immigration officials] to travel to Guantánamo if given the option.... It would allay any concerns."

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Hassan had fled China for Afghanistan after being imprisoned for his religious practice, and was living in an Uighur community at the time of the 2001 US invasion. To escape the bombing, the Uighurs fled to Pakistan, where they say they were picked up by Pakistani police and sold to the US for bounty. The Algerian and the Syrian Kurd also say they were sold for bounty.

Participating Canadian churches all have experience supporting refugees who've come out of traumatic situations. Still, Trinity St. Paul's United Church in Toronto held lengthy congregational discussions before voting to move forward. Trinity has applied to sponsor Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, the Syrian Kurd.

"We wanted to go into this with our eyes wide open," says church member Sonya Wu-Winter. "At the heart of this is offering ourselves as a community of welcome. The material things are critical, but the core of friendship you can't live your life without."

Ultimately, "there was very strong support in the congregation for this effort," Ms. Wu-Winter adds.

It helps that Canada has large Kurdish and Uighur communities, which the churches can draw upon.

The Anglican Diocese of Montreal has applied to sponsor Djamel Ameziane, an ethnic Berber from Algeria who fled persecution during his country's civil war 16 years ago. Mr. Ameziane's lawyers allege he was brutalized during interrogations at Guantánamo and kept in solitary confinement for over a year. He has never had a judicial review of his case.

"We feel he's been wrongfully detained, and he has never been accused of anything," says Glynis Williams, a pastor who directs Montreal's Anglican-Presbyterian refugee ministry.

Support for a new life

As for Hassan, the sponsorship application was filed last May, and the Toronto church committee – known as Don Valley Refugee Resettlers – hopes the change in US administration will speed up action.

Once a visa has been granted, the committee will locate an apartment, ask their congregations to supply the furnishings, plan an ethnic meal, and meet him at the airport, Ms. Mancer says. They'll then help sort out the health and social insurance forms, orient him to community resources and language classes, and set up a bank account.

Each church makes an annual donation and holds fundraisers. Once the committee feels refugees are stable, "we transfer into their account the money they need for rent and expenses, and check in on how they are handling it and saving," Mancer says. They help those who know English find part-time work. Immigration pays the airfare into Canada, but refugees have to repay it.

Church members aren't worried about any psychological problems, they say – most of the refugees they've helped have come out of extreme situations.

Mr. Dixon, who has talked with some detainees, concurs. "In general, these men have faced persecution most of their lives. A lot ended up in Afghanistan because they faced persecution elsewhere," he says. "At this point, they would be happy to settle anywhere where they can be safe, work, have a family, and lead a quiet life."