By Ann Deveau
World Refugee Day is June 20, which gives us a chance to consider the plight of refugees around the world, to honour their will to survive, and to renew our commitment to helping them settle in Canada.
Last year at this time, a Liberian family of four was packing its meager belongings into two small suitcases and preparing to fly 10,000 kilometres from the misery of a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast to an unknown place named Fredericton.
A team of volunteers from the cathedral and 10 Anglican parishes in the Fredericton area raised funds, gathered furnishings, and hurried to prepare everything necessary to care for this family for one year. Nobody knew what an eventful year it would be.
With nearly 11 months under their belts, where do things stand for Phillip Weah, his wife Esther Gmah and her children, 20-year-old Arene and 17-year-old Catherine?
Phillip takes English language training at the Cultural Centre daily and is making progress. He has done some odd jobs such as mowing and raking. His goal is to learn to drive and buy a car.
“The church group is always good to us, they give us everything, and they take good care of us,” Phillip said. “Any problem we have, they come right away to solve it. I say thank you very much.”
Esther was not well when she arrived in Canada and spent from early September until Christmas in the local hospital, including time in the regional hospital in Saint John. By now, she is doing much better, although her mobility is limited. She is learning English and hopes to learn to read and write.
Arene went to high school off and on, struggling to fit into a structure and rules foreign to anything he had ever experienced. Currently, he is taking English lessons at the Cultural Centre, attending counselling and serving one year’s probation after pleading guilty in court to a charge of assault.
Like Arene, Catherine dances with the Making Africa Proud group. She attends FHS and is making good progress with the language. Unfortunately, she has been diagnosed with an illness which has required three trips to Halifax to see a specialist and which will result in surgery there this summer.
“She is a lovely girl who has captured my heart,” says her tutor, Cathie Gerber. “She shows amazing strength in all that she has endured.”
Normally, refugee sponsorship ends after one year (July 2017 in their case) when funds run out. Sometimes, a family has found jobs and settled rapidly into Canadian society. More often, especially with less educated refugees who have suffered trauma, self-sufficiency is elusive. These families apply for provincial social assistance.
With the Weah-Gmah family, a third route has opened up. Our sponsorship agreement holder, the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches, kindly helped us apply for additional federal funding to support the family for another year. The application was approved due to the complex medical and psychological challenges, not to mention language barriers and legal issues.
“The family will receive a monthly allowance from the federal government until July 2018, which will give them more time to adapt to Canada,” explained Archdeacon Patricia Drummond who leads the sponsorship team. “We will continue to be involved for the next year with big things such as Catherine’s illness, helping them with written forms or giving advice if needed, but not on a day-to-day basis with every little thing as has been the case this past intense year.”
Their current apartment is too expensive under the new funding structure, but, happily, a subsidized apartment has been found downtown, thanks to the good folks at Christ Church (Parish) Church who operate properties. Phillip, Esther and Catherine will move there by the end of July.
“I want my own place,” Arene announced when he turned 20, and his family readily agreed it would be beneficial. A room to rent, or room and board, is being sought for him because it’s what he will be able to afford on his federal allowance.
Many tough challenges lie ahead for all of them on the road to self-sufficiency, but they have shown considerable resilience so far. The volunteers have put in countless hours, and it has been a real learning experience for them, too.
“It has often been very stressful and bewildering for us and for them, but sponsoring refugees rescues people from dangerous and hopeless situations,” said volunteer Doug Milander. “It offers this family the chance for a new life. It benefits Christ, and it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Some people have asked whether more financial donations are needed for the Weah-Gmah family. The money remaining in the refugee sponsorship account should cover their living expenses as the year ends as well as moving expenses, damage deposits and so on.
However, the family will have unexpected expenses related to visits to Halifax to deal with Catherine’s illness. They also must repay a $9,000 travel loan to the federal government, which is a significant debt for unemployed people to handle. Any contributions received would be put toward these special circumstances. Cheques can be made out to Christ Church Parish Church, adding Refugee Sponsorship on the memo line.
The sponsorship team is thankful for the prayerful support of the Fredericton-area parishes during the past year and especially as a second year in Canada begins for these former refugees, said Archdeacon Drummond.
Editor’s Note: Since the refugee crisis erupted in Europe in 2015, many parishes around the dioceses have pitched in to meet needs. These acts have been everything from bake sales to full-on sponsorship and everything in between, including partnering with other churches in a wonderful, ecumenical effort for their communities.
Parishioners have taken on roles in their towns and cities as well to bring in and help settle refugees. We know of efforts in Woodstock, Fredericton, Saint John, Sussex, Moncton and Hillsborough, particularly with Syrian refugees. If you or your parish has a story to tell about refugee efforts, write it down and send it in. Got photos? Include them too.
The Government of Canada reports that from the fall of 2015 to the end of January 2017, 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the country.
This story is reprinted, with permission, from the Christ Church Cathedral website.