Q&A with MCCO: Syrian refugees in Canada

Tasneem Jamal Forced Displacement and Migration

In anticipation of World Refugee Day on June 20, Sonal Marwah recently engaged in conversation with Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCCO) staff. Kaylee Perez, Refugee Sponsorship Associate, and Moses Moini, Refugee Program Coordinator, shared information and insights into MCCO’s current work and relationship with new Syrian refugees in Canada.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer 2016; interview conducted and edited by Sonal Marwah

Sonal Marwah: Has MCCO’s focus changed or been modified to respond to the needs of refugees in the current migration crisis?

MCCO: Mennonite Central Committee has a long history of working with refugee populations. Since its inception in 1920, MCC has assisted thousands of displaced people and has been instrumental in creating and promoting policies to assist refugees in Canada. We have always worked towards durable solutions for refugees, primarily through providing humanitarian aid to local partners and resettlement in Canada. Since this is what MCC has been doing all along, the current migration crisis has called on us to respond by increasing our capacity locally and internationally, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan.

In Canada, MCC as a sponsorship agreement holder continues to facilitate refugee sponsorships by Mennonite churches and groups. Through this process, MCC Canada has sponsored several hundred refugees since 1979. Currently, resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq is our strategic priority from 2015-2020. After the tragic incident that claimed the lives of the Kurdi family, MCCO Refugee Resettlement Program (RRP) was redesigned to address and support groups eager to sponsor Syrian refugees, along with other refugee populations in need.

SM: MCC’s largest ever humanitarian effort has been to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. What are some of the challenges that MCCO has faced in assisting new Syrian refugees in Canada? Has there been an impact on refugees of other nationalities?

MCCO: The weekend after the photo of Alan Kurdi surfaced in the media, we received hundreds of requests for information about sponsorship. That still continues, although at a reduced number. The RRP has resettled over 500 refugees since April 2015.

Matching and arrival times between November and February 2015 were quick and created unrealistic expectations for groups waiting their turn to be matched with a newcomer refugee family. Now that the target to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees has been met, the process has significantly slowed down, leaving over 65 of our groups on a wait list. We also have groups that were matched late last year or early this year whose families have not arrived yet. Some of those groups are stuck with empty rented apartments, have wasted resources, and are barely hanging on to dwindling morale. Keeping the groups on the wait list engaged and motivated is a challenge, considering that some will not be matched until the end of 2017 or later.

The need for sponsors to have a realistic expectation of sponsoring refugees is another challenge. An emergency response of this magnitude and speed is never perfect. Protecting the most vulnerable refugee populations is the goal of a resettlement program. There is a need to understand how complicated this process is, with complex decision-making and processes being followed overseas and communication challenges among the partners. This requires our patience and commitment to support the cause of refugees. In fact, being stuck in this bureaucratic limbo is a glimpse into the daily reality of refugees seeking safety.

In terms of the impact on refugees of other nationalities, the focus on Syrian refugees created a two-tiered system in Canada. While non-Syrian refugees arrived with debt and with hundreds of cases slowly making their way through processing, some Syrian refugees were expedited and arrived in Canada with special treatment and loan free.

SM: In the midst of the current growing migration crisis, what do you see as the role and value of faith-based organizations?

MCCO: As a faith-based organization, MCC is called to respond from scriptural teaching in Leviticus 19:33-34. We have a significant role to play in a climate in which fear mongering has been rampant and media attention has been focused on dialogue surrounding the importance of national security agendas. As a faith-based organization, we respond out of faith and not fear of the unknown or terrorist threat.

We also believe in the power of partnership. MCC has the reputation of being “the big tent” that brings people together who would not normally work together and this resettlement response has been no different.

SM: In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, there have been several interfaith collaborations in Canada. Can you speak to the importance of such partnerships?

MCCO: Yes, some of our Constituent Groups (CGs) are made up of mosques working together with churches and other interfaith community groups. In refugee resettlement, we have found that interfaith partnerships create the warmest welcome for refugees across religious, cultural, and linguistic divides.

The importance of partnerships is that it sets up a model for inclusion in Canada. Newcomer families are delighted to learn that there are interfaith groups working together and that they will be accepted as they are and not forced to conform to a different religion. This is when Canada is at its best and when sponsorship groups tangibly demonstrate the model of inclusion, which delivers positive results in terms of successful integration of refugees.

SM: Has MCC collaborated with non-faith-based organizations?

MCCO: Our traditional approach to refugee sponsorship prior to September 2015 was through MCC Constituent Groups. In September, after the image of Alan Kurdi appeared, our approach changed in significant ways. It brought together a diverse group; other church groups become interested in joining our work on resettlement—other faith groups, neighbourhood groups, institutions of learning, and even municipalities.

As we connected and mobilized community resources, strong and wider partnerships were formed, which helped increase our capacity to deliver.

SM: What are some key lessons from MCC’s work with refugees that can be shared as best practices?

MCCO: Sponsorship preparation events helped bring the community (groups with prior experience of resettlement, Syrian cultural experts, and volunteers) together in preparation for what they were to do when new refugees would arrive in communities where they were going to settle. Connecting CGs within regions to collaborate and share ideas helps build capacity in the host community. There are groups with years of experience that are mentoring first-time sponsors. Also, getting groups to begin thinking outside of their North American mindset, filled with checklists and preconceived notions of how everything will pan out, was important.

SM: How has civil society responded to MCC’s request for support of new Syrian refugees?

MCCO: Very generously! MCC is a respected organization and with proven capacity to deliver. We are working with over 220 sponsorship groups, who have mobilized volunteers as well as finances. The dedication from these groups inspires us even in the most challenging of times. MCC is a strong volunteer-driven organization.

The beauty of the private-sponsorship-of-refugees model in Canada, in terms of how civil society can engage, is that this program is a framework for members of the community to commit to long-term community-building in Canada. As you build relationships with newcomers through private sponsorship, you not only learn about refugee issues, but also about other housing needs in Canada, and about Ontario’s social assistance needs. You have to become knowledgeable about social services available in your community and act as that bridge between the newcomer family and host community. Canadians’ eyes are opened to many new social justice issues through this process.

SM: How has the federal government supported MCC’s efforts?

MCCO: One of the government’s biggest supports has been to increase the number of cases that MCC can sponsor. In 2015, MCC received 22 named sponsorship spaces; this year it was increased to 368. The Blended Refugee Sponsorship Program is a great model that shows how the government can partner with civil society in responding quickly to bring refugees to safety. It is thus referred to as a “blended” program because it is a cost-sharing arrangement whereby Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and sponsorship agreement holders both contribute to financially supporting refugees.

Lastly, we feel there is political will and inclusive dialogue with the government to plan and respond to the refugee needs.

SM: What is the significance of World Refugee Day for MCCO?

MCCO: There are several significant points: to reflect on the tragedies that refugees endure; to commemorate the incredible strength, courage, resilience of refugees; to celebrate and thank the communities that have welcomed refugees in Canada; the positive contributions made by refugees to Canadian society; and to remember there is so much more to be done.

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