When Kate Newton saw the photos of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last September, she began educating herself about the Syrian refugee crisis. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, ” she says. “I knew I had to do something … something more than what I’d normally do, like give a donation.”
After her husband brought up the idea of sponsoring a refugee, Newton — a nurse and mother of three young sons — e-mailed the rector of their parish, Paul Friesen, to ask if there was a way to do something through their church. Unbeknownst to her, other parishioners had individually e-mailed Friesen with the same question. Before long a committee of 15 was formed, and the process was underway to sponsor a refugee family.
St. Paul’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Canada and located in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a relatively small but engaged congregation of about 250 people. After the refugee committee was formed in late October, members raised $27,000 — the required amount to sponsor a family for one year — from within the church in just two months. (To date they’ve raised $37,000 — again without any outside fundraising.) The parish also pooled many of its members’ skills and resources to help the refugee family before and after arrival — from language help, to medical assistance, to a helpful spreadsheet created by a member who knew firsthand what family members need when they move to a new country.
Although Friesen was made honorary chair of the committee, he says the project has been a work of the laity. “My job was to be the supporter, the spokesman within the parish, an encouraging force, but I didn’t have to shoulder it. It was encouraging for me to see that it wasn’t a matter of adding a family to our parish — we knew this family would probably be Muslim — but a matter of extending Gospel hospitality to people who really needed it. I was watching our baptized members whole-heartedly engaged in this, not doing it for personal gain. There is so much in Scripture about receiving refugees, and I could say a lot about it theologically. … Most of the people involved are at Sunday liturgy, so it has a focus of being rooted it in the worshiping life of the parish.”
St. Paul’s is just one of many groups that has sponsored refugees in Atlantic Canada. As part of the Canadian government’s pledge to receive 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December (which was accomplished by the end of February), there are now more than 800 government-sponsored refugees in Nova Scotia, plus hundreds who have been privately sponsored. It’s been a massive undertaking in such a small province.
Being matched with a refugee family can happen in a couple of ways. In this case the committee used an expert skilled in immigration matters who was supplied by their diocese. They learned of the family they would be receiving in early December, and by the end of January, they heard that the family had been vetted and passed medicals.
“There was some anxiety after that because the government took a while to make up its mind, and the family had considered going to France as well,” recalls Friesen. “So we were wondering if the same family would actually be the one who would arrive.”