OPTIONS - When my parents decided to immigrate to Canada in the 1980s, they were sponsored by family members who they knew would be waiting for them at the airport. When you ask them today what the greatest factor was in their decision to immigrate to Canada, they say that it was knowing they’d have a support network waiting for them. The daunting journey was made much easier for them because they knew they had a support system that was prepared to help them find a job and show them the nearest church, grocery store and park. If they had a problem, they had a community of people only a phone call away who could help them navigate the new country they found themselves in. This was the basis upon which they built their new life, which turned into a successful immigrant story.
My family’s story is also the story of millions of newcomers who are lucky enough to immigrate to Canada knowing they have people waiting on the other side to make the transition smoother. Some of these immigrants happen to be refugees, who find themselves in an unthinkable position: displaced by war and civil unrest, forced out of their homes and left to pick up the pieces while living in a refugee camp or on the streets of a country that happens to border theirs, until they are accepted for immigration.
The majority of refugees enter Canada as either government-assisted refugees (GARs) or privately sponsored refugees (PSRs). GARs are refugees who are chosen by institutions such as the UN Refugee Agency and then referred to the government of Canada for resettlement, and they are entirely supported by the government for up to one year. PSRs are refugees sponsored by a private group that promises to financially and emotionally support a refugee for the first year that they live in Canada.
Private sponsors are a part of civil society, associations that “are formed voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests or values.” Civil society organizations can include clubs, unions and associations, families, firms and, of course, private sponsorship groups. Private sponsorship groups are made up of concerned citizens who have voluntarily come together based on a shared desire to help refugees succeed.
There are many success stories of refugees who arrived in Canada through the PSR program, and who have thrived due to that sponsorship. One Syrian man, Alhakam Alsheikh, was privately sponsored and settled in Newfoundland in March 2017. He quickly found work as a technician in a local computer company using the job-search resource provided by the Association for New Canadians in St. John’s, a nonprofit, community-based organization. A year later, the owner decided to retire. Alsheikh raised the money to buy the company and is now running the business.
Many will remember the story of a Syrian refugee sponsored by a group in Guelph, Ontario, who happened to live next door to a bride in distress. Just four days after his arrival in Canada, he sprang into action when a wedding party at a neighbouring house needed help. The zipper on the bride’s dress had broken, and the Syrian, a tailor, was able to sew the dress back together moments before the ceremony, with the help of Google Translate.
Canadian private sponsorship is so highly regarded that in recent years, countries like Argentina, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have experimented with sponsorship programs based on the Canadian model. The United States also started a program in the late 1980s that was short-lived and has yet to be revived.
The stronger civil society is, the greater the positive outcomes are for society and for individual refugees. Canada has a good system for private sponsorship of refugees in place already. Strengthening private sponsorship is worth having a conversation about, because the advantages of civil society to refugees are numerous and undeniable. Voluntary action by individuals and groups within civil society ought to be encouraged, and strengthening the refugee system should be only the beginning.