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To bring refugees west, Americans look north – to Canada

Why We Wrote This

The US may be admitting fewer refugees in recent years, but Americans are still finding ways to bring families from the Middle East to safety in the West. The trick: They’re helping them reach Canada, not the US.

Sara Miller LLana/The Christian Science Monitor
Ed Wethli, a Pittsburgh businessman, came up against restrictions when he tried to bring all of a Syrian family to safety in the US. So he turned to Canada instead, successfully getting 23 family members to safety in Ontario.

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For many Americans, showing compassion to refugees has been much harder lately. Resettlement numbers in the US have plummeted in the past two years. Just 22,491 refugees were resettled during fiscal year 2018, about a quarter of the number from two years prior. That drop is primarily due to Washington’s rolling up the welcome mat; refugee resettlement in the US is a government, not a private, venture. But those among the public who still wish to help are channeling their humanitarian spirit northward. Through Canada’s private sponsorship program, which allows community organizations and individuals to apply for resettlement for refugees, Americans have been able to funnel resources to partners north of the border, enabling the Canadian groups to do more than they would be able to alone. “In our circles it wasn’t enough, what we could raise between ourselves,” says Vania Davidovic, who lives in Oakville outside Toronto and has directly sponsored nine families in Canada. Connecting with Americans such as Leslie Meral Schick in Boston has helped Ms. Davidovic’s group expand its network. “I am hugely frustrated with the situation in the US,” says Ms. Schick. “Canada is the only way that we can really help locally.”

When Ed Wethli, a Pittsburgh coffee company owner, learned of a Syrian family in Saudi Arabia facing deportation back to their war-torn homeland, he says he simply had to help.

He brought the couple and their two elementary-school boys to his home in December 2014. They applied for asylum, and settled nicely into their new American, middle-class suburb. But all was not well. Their extended family remained in Syria. They – and Mr. Wethli – listened with growing angst as stories of bombs, sniper attacks, and beheadings mounted.

Then came the day that the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned when his family tried to reach Europe, circulated in September 2015. Spurred into action, Wethli texted 60 friends and told them to show up at his home that night. Twenty did, and they founded Ananias Mission, a nonprofit aimed at doing what they did for the first Syrian family for the rest of it still in harm's way. But they couldn't find an avenue for private efforts to bring refugees to the United States.

“I thought, ‘We’ll talk with senators and congressmen, we can make this happen,’ ” he says. “The situation was a mess. Now I know we were pretty naive. That’s when we found out about Canada.”

Through Canada’s private sponsorship program, which allows churches, community organizations, and individuals to apply for resettlement for refugees, his organization eventually helped get the rest of the family members – 23 in all – to safety. But not to Pittsburgh: rather, across the border in Ontario and sponsored by the Diocese of St. Catharines. And now the Pittsburgh-based organization plans to help raise funds to get more refugees to Canada.

In doing so, they join other Americans who, limited at home, are channeling their humanitarian spirit northward – and readjusting their views of America’s role in global crisis, as the US has rolled back its humanitarian efforts in recent years.

“To me it really is an expression of ordinary people wanting to do what is right,” says Sharalyn Jordan, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who sits on the board of Rainbow Refugee, an organization that helps LGBTQ refugees overcome barriers to accessing protection in Canada. “They want to show fairness and compassion to refugees, despite what governments are doing.”

‘Circles of hope’

For many Americans, that’s been much harder lately. Resettlement numbers in the US have plummeted in the last two years in the US. Just 22,491 refugees were resettled during fiscal year 2018, about a quarter of the number from two years prior.

In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order placing limitations on refugees and visitors from many Muslim-majority countries. In its wake, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a message that resonated around the world: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

Rainbow Refugee has been running a blended sponsorship pilot since 2011. It is partially funded by the Canadian government but relies on “circles of hope,” or private sponsors who commit to a newcomer’s finances and integration for a year, the cornerstone of Canada’s private sponsorship model.

To date they have sponsored 145 refugees across Canada from 13 countries, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Jordan. The pilot has been renewed through 2020.

When the ban was put into place, Rainbow Refugee was contacted by Americans who were in the process of supporting an LGBTQ refugee to be resettled in the US but whose case was now stymied, says Ms. Jordan. “They reached out to us to see if there was anything that could be done. We started very small with just one,” she says.

US partners raised finances, while in Canada, Rainbow Refugee formed circles of hope, always with LGBTQ members and their allies to help with the specific challenges of integration for LGBTQ refugees. Now they are eyeing formalizing the binational partnership with California-based groups.

Stronger together

Sponsors in Canada say American support has been vital to their volunteer efforts.

Vania Davidovic, who lives in Oakville outside Toronto, has directly sponsored nine families in Canada, which includes more than 50 individuals. For that, she has tirelessly raised funds – currently estimated at about $16,500 (Canadian; US$12,400) for an individual or $28,700 for a family of four – appealing to co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family. But she says that given the needs of so many refugees, there is a limit on how much people can or are willing to give. “In our circles it wasn’t enough, what we could raise between ourselves,” she says.

She met Leslie Meral Schick, who lives in Boston, online. Like so many others, Ms. Schick was moved by the photo of Alan Kurdi. She channels most of her volunteerism to Greece, where she’s about to make her ninth trip in February. But when she connected with Ms. Davidovic and her circle of Canadian volunteers, she started helping closer to home, organizing fundraisers for Canadian sponsorship.

Once, Davidovic was short a sponsor to form what’s known as a “group of five” individuals required to support a refugee application. Schick, born in Turkey, contacted a high school friend from Turkey who she hadn’t talked to since 1977 and who now lives in Canada. He didn’t hesitate. The family arrived in Toronto in the fall. Schick couldn’t be there.

“I am hugely frustrated with the situation in the US, so you know Canada is the only way that we can really help locally,” says Schick.

Individuals are not the only ones looking north to circumvent limitations at home. Gideon Maltz, the executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which works with the private sector to mobilize refugee hires, says he talks with many American companies that want to support refugees.

“And obviously one of the barriers they are coming up against now is that there are so few refugees entering the United States that it's extremely difficult to at this point in time to hire them at any scale or support them in any scale,” he says. They are looking at ways they can make hires in their operations outside the US, whether that’s in supply chains in the Middle East or retail offices in Canada. Starbucks Canada, for example, says it is committed to 1,000 refugee hires by 2022.

Limits to the partnership

The refugee crisis has not played out without rebuke in Canada, generating some anti-immigrant sentiment as well as some anti-Americanism. After the US announced it would pull protected status away from national groups welcomed in the US during times of crisis, like Haitians and Salvadorans, some have sought to cross covertly into Canada – sometimes with the help of American guides – putting pressure on Canada’s politics.

But many speak of a deepening partnership, even if it’s one viewed with some discontent.

Wethli crosses the border to Canada often to visit the 23 members of the family now living there, backed by the Diocese of St. Catharines. But the family he supports back in Pittsburgh can’t go with him, as they still await a decision from the US on their asylum application. And most of their relatives in Canada have not been able to travel to Pittsburgh, denied the visas they need to enter the US.

Early on Wethli drove the families to either side of the border at Niagara Falls. They stood on the platforms across the river that serves as the international boundary; each family held binoculars and cell phones, waving to each other. “That is how they have seen each other. They were crying,” says Wethli, tearing up himself. “I still get chills thinking about it.”

He says he looks to Canada as a refuge, but remains troubled by where his own country stands. “Well, it needs to happen, so thank God Canada is doing it. And if we can support it as an American, let’s do it,” he says. “But we have always been the country in times of crisis in the world that has stepped up. We’re not leading anymore.”

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