Like others in Canada and around the world, Ann Hustis and her husband, Nick Assad, were deeply moved by the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was found facedown on a Turkish beach in September 2015. He died along with his brother and mother after their boat, which was full of refugees, sank in the Mediterranean Sea.
Ms. Hustis and Mr. Assad wondered, “How can we make a difference?” The answer wasn’t just donating to a cause or leaving it to the government. They were ready to bring refugees to Canada, assume financial responsibility for them, and personally take care of them for at least a year – under the country’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program.
Hustis and Assad invited relatives, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues to help them form a sponsorship group. More than 40 people answered their call – including teachers, doctors, nurses, computer consultants, and a former politician.
Members of the group chipped in $25,000 (Canadian; US$18,500) to get the ball rolling. They then turned to fundraising, because looking after a refugee family is a significant investment. Anecdotally, sponsoring three families costs about C$80,000.
The first family the Hustis-Assad group brought over was the Al Khatoufs – Ali; his wife, Raghdaa; and their four young children. They fled Syria in 2012, after their family home came under bombardment, and they arrived in Ottawa last summer.
The sponsors were so pleased with how the Al Khatoufs settled in that they brought over a second family, and a third is due this summer. It includes the best friend of the Al Khatoufs’ eldest daughter, 11-year-old Nour. [Editor's note: In an earlier version of the story, the preceding sentence was mistakenly put in the wrong place.]
“Our job is to help [a] family become independent and become [well]-functioning Canadians. If we can get them on their feet, then we will have done our job,” says Vicky Assad, who is Mr. Assad’s niece and part of the sponsorship group.
The experience of the Hustis-Assad sponsors – as well as that of an Ottawa church’s sponsorship group – provides a window into Canada’s distinct approach to handling influxes of refugees. In the PSR program, ordinary citizens can take a frontline role in aiding those who have been through immense challenges.
This program might not be the answer for other countries. But according to Canadian government data, it’s so popular that officials are struggling to process a backlog of 16,000 applications from hundreds of sponsorship groups for 40,000 refugees (about 40 percent of whom are Syrian).
The program came about in the late 1970s after citizen groups urged the Canadian government to do more to help “boat people” – refugees fleeing the fallout of the Vietnam War. Over the ensuing years, some 300,000 refugees have been welcomed to Canada in this way, according to government figures.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has lauded Canada’s program, which it describes as “unique.”
“While resettlement removes refugees from situations of potential harm, it can be profoundly challenging for people to effectively begin their life once more in a new location where so much is foreign and unknown,” writes Michael Casasola, a UNHCR resettlement officer in Ottawa, in an email. “Sponsors help bridge this divide. Sponsors play an important role in befriending and providing emotional support to the newly arrived refugees and are an antidote to isolation. They introduce the refugee to their community. They accompany them to appointments and make sure family members get registered for relevant programs and services. The sponsors are the ones the refugees may turn to during off hours or when they are unsure.”
Preparing for the refugee families
This is just what the sponsors in the Hustis-Assad group have done. Their work began well before the arrival of the families, as they made arrangements for housing.
“We researched the best communities to place our families and then proceeded to rent accommodations – in our case, three-bedroom town houses,” Ms. Assad recalls. The group, she notes, collected furniture and bought some items such as mattresses.
“We turned over fully furnished homes ready to go with everything from food in the cupboards to window coverings, artwork on the walls, new linens, [and] bikes for the children,” she says.
The group had no concerns about security issues, Hustis says.
“I know the Canadian government has a very good vetting process,” she says. “We have to realize these are people escaping the war – fathers and mothers who have young children, who want nothing more for their kids than to have an education and be healthy. They are wonderful people. They are like us.”
The sponsors say they’ve enjoyed introducing the families to Canada by organizing social events for them such as days at a cottage, sleigh rides, and Christmas dinners. They’ve also taken the children to choir practice and swimming lessons.
But it’s definitely a big time commitment.
“We had to find doctors and dentists for the families who could speak Arabic,” Ms. Assad says. “Both families had major dental issues and lots of dental emergencies, so we spent lots of time setting up appointments and driving them back and forth. Every week there are at least two [or] three appointments.”
Also, dental fees have represented unforeseen costs. Although dental care for the children is covered under a special government program, the adults have incurred costs of C$10,000 for dentures, root canals, and other work. (It’s not uncommon for such needs to fall by the wayside while refugees wait to be resettled.)
As for the Al Khatoufs, the parents are busy learning English to ready themselves for the workforce. At their home, 3-year-old Hiba, dressed in a pink tutu, tears around like a ballerina in a whirlwind. Five-year-old Abdallah naps on the sofa while the older girls, Nour and 9-year-old Ghaydaa, talk excitedly about school.
Their favorite subject? Sports: “We play basketball, soccer. Then afterward we do volleyball!”
It’s all a far cry from how they lived for four years in Lebanon – in the cramped conditions of a converted security guard’s office. They had ended up there after traveling by foot for the last 12 miles of their journey from Syria.
The role of churches
Since the ’70s, churches have played a key role in the PSR program. One such church is Emmanuel United Church in Ottawa, which has helped settle refugees from Laos, Bosnia, and Liberia, among other places.
“We want to improve conditions for people in the world that have lives that are more difficult than our own,” says Jonathan Jones, who leads the refugee sponsorship group at the church. “It feels good to give money. It feels even better to get involved and meet the family at the end of the story.”
His group sponsored Mamy Zawadi and her three teenage children, who fled violence in the Congo in 2007.
Ms. Zawadi recalls living in fear after she reached Uganda, worried that militias would cross the border to find her. She had been running as a candidate in local elections in the Congo.
It was a struggle to survive in Uganda, she remembers: “I think I would have died from hunger ... or malaria. I couldn’t afford medication.” She says that Mr. Jones’s group “really saved our lives.”
Indeed, in 2014, the Emmanuel sponsors were given one month’s notice about the Zawadis’ arrival. “We had to scramble to find accommodation, get furniture and clothing,” recalls Jones, who notes they had little time to lease an apartment. “We had a blitz one weekend when we moved in furniture donated by church members, hung curtains, connected up the TV and internet, and stocked the fridge.”
Zawadi remembers fondly how Jones and his fellow sponsors welcomed her family at the airport with warm coats.
Once the Zawadis settled into the apartment, the sponsors helped them with things they needed to get through everyday life – getting applications for bus passes, showing them how to take the bus, pointing out where nearby grocery stores were, opening up bank accounts, and obtaining health cards for Canada’s universal health-care system.
After a year, the usual duration of sponsorship, Jones says that the family manages “with little help from us. But we made sure that someone in the group saw the family at least once per week.” He adds, “We gave birthday cards and gifts at Christmas.”
All the Zawadis are doing well in school – including Mamy, who is studying at the University of Ottawa to be an accountant. Jones has given her lifts during exams, and he presented skates that his sons no longer needed to the hockey-loving Zawadi kids.
With the successful launch of this family, Jones says the church is now focused on getting ready for the arrival of more refugees – from the Congo and Syria.
The other beneficiaries
But it’s not just refugees who benefit from the PSR program.
“Sponsors also speak about the profound impact sponsoring has had on their lives as they bridge cross-cultural differences and develop friendships which often last for a lifetime,” says Mr. Casasola of UNHCR.
This is something echoed by Hustis, who has taken six months off from work to spend more time with the newcomers.
“I think it’s a lot more emotional than I expected. I didn’t realize how close we would become with the family,” she says. “All the volunteers think nothing of dropping in [to have] tea or inviting them out.”