When Iseh al-Masri got off a plane with her husband, Hussam Tahina, and four children to start a new life in Canada, she found a group of people near the arrivals door carrying welcome signs and placards with their names. Shocked to see. members of his family.
The Greeting Committee, including several high schoolers, belonged to a community group in the Atlantic coastal city of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, which would take primary responsibility for helping them become established in Canada, with little involvement of the federal or local government.
“I didn’t know. They didn’t tell us we had a sponsor group there,” said al-Masri, a Syrian refugee whose family waited five years in Jordan for permanent resettlement before coming to Canada in 2016. Was. .
The United Nations “told us we were going to Canada and that’s it. We had no idea,” she told VOA in a recent interview.
“It is a reward in itself to see people greet you after a long journey and a hard fight,” he said. “Such greetings resulted in my exhaustion. Moving to a new nation is both exciting and terrifying. I got the impression that we are all human beings living on the same planet, and boundaries don’t define us.”
The arrival of families like Tahina can be as exciting for their new hosts as it is for the refugees themselves.
Sheila Sears said, “It is a very powerful experience to go to Halifax Stanfield International Airport to greet a new refugee family coming to Nova Scotia.”
“They’re often the last passengers on the plane, so there’s a lot of anticipation in the arrivals area,” she told VOA. “Often fellow travelers and airport volunteers realize that something special is happening and they wait with us.
“In Arabic there are signs of welcome, flowers, enthusiastic family members, members of the Antigonish Syrian community and SAFE volunteers,” said Sears, a retired public health official and founding member of SAFE.
As for the Tahinians, it’s been five years since their fatal arrival at Halifax airport. In that time, the family has become established in Nova Scotia: one son has graduated in computer science from Acadia University in Wolfville, the other attended community college and the other two are still in college or high school.
Most of them were organized with the help of the Wolfville Refugee Support Network that sponsored them and remain a significant source of strength.
“They still support us. Whenever we ask them for support, they support us,” said al-Masri, who uses her first name. “Financial things, social things, they encourage me to go back to school and study. He opened the door for us. He helped us rebuild a new life here.”
Refugee sponsorship has also been an uplifting experience for the Wolfville Network, which began with the Tahina family and has now sponsored 15 refugees. Four more are expected soon.
“We had great community support,” said Judith Todd, a retired Baptist pastor and network member, who told VOA that the organization began with a core group of about 10 people, but has since served the interest of many fellow residents. has attracted.
“And a lot of them became volunteers. We had a whole host of volunteers,” she said.
Canada’s private sponsorship of refugees program was launched in 1979, partly in response to the increase of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, and has been evolving ever since. So far more than 300,000 refugees have been relocated to Canada under the arrangement, which is seen as a model for the program being considered in the United States.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed to VOA this week that the department plans to launch a pilot private sponsorship program for refugees of any nationality starting in 2022.
Axios reports that the pilot program will allow private companies, advocacy groups and local communities to bring in and support refugees, some of whom Afghans were paroled into the United States following the Taliban takeover in Kabul.
Under the Canadian program, any group of five or more citizens or permanent residents can sponsor an immigrant, although in many cases these are faith groups or community service organizations.
According to a government website, sponsoring groups can choose from a list of candidates who have already been approved for refugee visas, or can identify individuals of their own choosing who will later be granted refugee status. will have to apply for.
During the first year, sponsors are responsible for covering the refugees’ start-up costs – for furniture, clothing and monthly expenses such as housing, food and public transport – and for supporting the refugees socially and emotionally. The government covers some other costs, such as health care, language classes and children’s education.
“About 58% of refugees recruited in the past 10 years have come under private sponsorship of the refugee program,” said Jonah Zifi, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, considered Canada’s top expert on refugee sponsorship policy.
“One of the key benefits of refugee sponsorship is precisely providing a way for more individuals to achieve safety and security,” Zifi explained. “It also allows citizens to respond to crises around the world, as it is a flexible tool. In fact, the private sponsorship model in Canada arose out of a desire to do more.
“It is also a reflection of the positive attitude of Canadians towards immigration and resettlement, increasing public support for refugees and providing citizens with a direct channel for action, assistance and participation. Thus, the model is attractive.”
However, he said, the program has not been without its problems, which include cultural barriers between refugees and their sponsors.
“Many sponsorship groups were unprepared to scale their responsibilities despite good intentions,” Zifi said.
“In particular, while sponsorship groups should aim to gain the independence and autonomy of newcomers, they can sometimes behave in culturally inappropriate and patriarchal ways, creating resentment among refugees and their sponsoring groups. Huh.”
Lee Cohen, founder of the Halifax Refugee Clinic and a Halifax-based attorney specializing in refugee law, said the program has opened up another avenue for refugees for whom the traditional route to permanent status in Canada is to apply from within. To do at the country or border entry point – very difficult.
“It is very difficult for most people from countries that require a visa to Canada, and declaring in the visa application that the applicant is seeking Canadian protection is the quickest way to get rejected,” he told the VOA.
“On a practical level, it makes sense to share the load and spread the responsibility and cost across the length and breadth of Canada,” he said. “If the task is too big for one government, it is made more manageable when the whole country is allowed to join as sponsors.
“I was told by retired lawyers involved in refugee cases that he had done nothing in the entirety of his legal career that equaled the satisfaction he felt in helping a refugee family. This sense of purpose and motivation Which money can’t buy.
Immigration reporter Aline Barros in Washington contributed to this report.