English churches prepare to assist refugees

Several dozen representatives of Quebec City’s English-speaking faith communities met on October 6 at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity to decide how the community could best help arriving Syrian refugees. Mayor Régis Labeaume had previously announced plans to bring up to 800 refugees to the city over the next two years. 

Cynthia Patterson, deacon of the Anglican cathedral, chaired the meeting and said the Church was “very happy to give its support” to a wider church initiative to take in refugees from the Syrian conflict, whose desperate attempts to leave Syria and reach wealthier countries have made headlines worldwide. 

Members of local Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches attended the meeting, as well as several community members who didn’t state a church affiliation. 

“When I look around the table, this meeting transcends our different churches,” said Darla Sloan of Église Unie St-Pierre. “It’s not just a parish that sponsors someone, it’s a community.” 

“We’d like to help in some way, and that’s why we’re here, to find out how we can help,” said Hugh Bignall, a longtime Holy Trinity parishioner. 

Louisa Blair, an active member of the cathedral who has worked on several previous refugee sponsorships, explained the process. “We’re ahead of the game because we have an agreement with the government that says we can sponsor refugees,” she explained. “But it’s an extremely slow and dysfunctional process.”

“We can either name the refugees that we would like to sponsor, or…ask the government to tell us who they recommend that we sponsor; the latter is a faster system, but then the government decides who we should sponsor and it won’t necessarily be Syrians.” 

Refugees coming to Canada first have to pass through a camp run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, most likely in a country bordering Syria. Blair emphasized that any refugees Canada accepts would go through a security and health screening before entering Canada. “And then eventually they arrive, and the whole process starts for us.”

Roles for a sponsorship group include helping newly arrived refugees find housing, jobs and schools and navigate mass transit. “Getting them here is the easy part,” said Blair. “Accompaniment is the important part.” A sponsorship group must commit to helping a refugee family for a year, including rent and food assistance if necessary, although children do qualify for benefits and adults enrolled in francisation courses receive a stipend. She also noted that integration could include providing companionship, integrating the refugees into the English-language church community if they chose, and teaching the new arrivals to skate. The more thorough the integration, she said, the more likely a family was to find their place in this country. 

“We’ve actually been lobbying Canada to accept more Syrians for a long time. I’m very excited that people actually are talking about sponsorship now and putting pressure on the government to do something,” Blair said.  

For Holy Trinity’s choirmaster Sandra Bender, the project is personal. She visited Syria in 2000 for a music project and has kept close watch on its politics. “I’ve been watching [President Bashar al Assad’s] career, and then watching with horror as the civil war broke out and ISIS moved in,” she says. 

“ I know there are a lot of people who need help, and I feel that as the church we are called to help, no matter who they are. I don’t care if they are families or individuals, Christian or not. They are people who are in boats and can’t land anywhere.” 

“I’ve driven across Canada, and it takes about 30 hours to cross Ontario,” she added. “I don’t see how we have any right to say no, we don’t have the space.” 

The next meeting of the Syria Ecumenical Committee will take place after the October 19 election. Interested community members may contact Louisa Blair at [email protected].