mosaic recently asked three churches from across the country to share their refugee sponsorship experience – RiverCross Church in Saint John, New Brunswick; Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church (SCBC) in Ontario; and First Baptist Church in Dauphin, Manitoba.
mosiac: How has the experience of your church in sponsoring/welcoming refugees to your community?
RIVERCROSS: We sponsored four families – each has a “welcome team” working alongside of them. Three of the families were from Syria. One has children with significant physical disabilities; in another, the parents have recently separated and we are working that through.
The first family was a widow and her six kids from Tajikistan. They were very wealthy but on the wrong side of the Russian-backed government. Her husband was murdered in front of her and some of the children. They were immediately lifted from the country and brought to Canada. Three weeks later, she realized she was pregnant with her sixth. She never had to personally cook or clean, grocery shop, or put the kids to bed – she had servants to do all this.
So a couple of “saints” in our church went over five nights a week and taught her how to do all these things.
At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, when new families were arriving every day in Saint John, they were all staying in the same hotel. A group from our church who provides a meal each week in an underprivileged neighbourhood decided they would like to also provide a weekly meal for the refugees at the hotel. This gave our church family time to sit and have a meal with the newcomers.
SCBC: In the first month after the family came to Canada, it was a whirlwind of appointments to get the family settled in. We were glad to have a lot of support in our church from the get go, but there was still a lot of coordination required to give the congregation opportunities to interact with the family. Through the challenges of finding a place to live, as well helping the family become comfortable with their new neighbourhood, we have been blessed to have memories of spending time with each other as regular people. Members of all ages were able to step up and spend time with the family, each bringing their unique skill set and personalities to the mix.
mosiac: What surprised you the most in the process? Either a challenge or an unexpected blessing, or both.
FB DAUPHIN: How did we miss doing this for so long? It was just last year that we tiptoed into this ministry feeling inadequate, over our heads, pretty much terrified. And our lives are changed. This little family from the other side of the world has become so dear, so precious to us.
Another surprise was how this venture would bring the larger church community together. Our church was only able to participate at the level we did because of the generosity of our sister Baptist churches across the province. We also teamed with a Catholic and United church and each brought a family to our town. The three families are a tremendous support to each other and the three churches continue to work closely as new challenges present themselves.
SCBC: When we first talked about sponsorship, we thought it was just a settlement project – that we were going to welcome and settle this family who has seen so much horror and hardship. The unexpected blessing is that they have become our friends and family who we visit, share messages on social media, check up on how the kids are doing in school, have meals together… enjoy family road trips to Niagara Falls and the Santa Claus parade.
The most difficult thing is to watch our Syrian families grieve all they left behind. We tend to think they are happy to leave Syria and come to Canada. But they loved their country and are very proud of their country, despite the war.
mosiac: What was the most difficult thing to deal with for members of your church? And for the refugee family?
RIVERCROSS: Some members of our church had to battle some of the fear- mongering that was happening – fears that some of these people might be terrorists, or bad for the country, or were going to take our jobs or be a drain on our system. Saint John is going through its own season of economic depression so we have many people here needing help. In response to this, we did a four- week teaching series entitled “Refuge: is there hope when it all falls apart?” People needed to hear something hopeful, honest and biblical.
The most difficult thing is to watch our Syrian families grieve all they left behind. We tend to think they are happy to leave Syria and come to Canada. But they loved their country and are very proud of their country, despite the war. They are grieving family members killed or left behind and they have no idea where they are or if they are alive. One of our families had a child die in an explosion and dad was injured quite badly and is now in a wheelchair. You feel bad for them when all they hear in the news about Syria is the war – they see their country as so much bigger than the war.
FB DAUPHIN: The language barrier was the most difficult part for us. We were thankful that we found a translator to meet the families at the airport with us, but we quickly realized how hard this was going to be without him. How would we explain the myriad of details about their housing, banking, schools, strange food labels and English classes?
We longed to find out what our family really thought and no amount of translating seemed to make those early conversations easy. We were so worried about offending them and about their comfort and they were so concerned about being a burden that we wore the translator out with niceties.
mosiac: What, if anything, would you do differently?
RIVERCROSS: There are lots of cultural mistakes we made because we were not familiar with Arab and Muslim cultures. These provided some funny but also awkward moments. For example, we did not know anything about Eid, the 30-day Muslim fast… bad time to bring over food; allowing a guest to go through a door first; bringing gifts for eldest family members; customs around greeting members of the opposite sex, etc.
We would have gotten involved sooner – and almost missed out on this opportunity. The first family (from Tajikistan) we sponsored had a lot of needs, was really struggling in Canada and was not happy to be here. It was not looking like an easy assignment, and would require specific volunteers. It would have been easy to say no. We would have missed out on an incredible opportunity.
FB DAUPHIN: Because our church team was small we could efficiently address needs that arose. More opinions could have made that work harder. The downside of the small team was the heavy workload for the few and now we wish more people could have been part of this amazing experience. We are still trying
to provide opportunities for our Syrian families and our churches to interact. All three churches recently voted to try to sponsor some of our family’s close relatives – that gives us another chance to involve more people.
mosiac: What was the most beautiful thing to come out of this experience? And some of the things you learned from each other?
SCBC: Sometimes we focus too much on our differences rather than our similarities… what has bonded us is our common love. The father in the family we sponsored took his family out of a war torn country, carrying his mobility-impaired son on his back over borders and eventually to Canada to give his kids a better life. That’s something all parents can understand and appreciate. We have learned so much from him about sacrifice and love; it challenges us to do the same.
RIVERCROSS: One of the most beautiful things to come out of this experience was to see a
family that arrived in Canada broken – mentally, physically, and spiritually – start to heal, trust others and feel safe. The first family arrived in Canada just weeks following the death of their husband and father. We have not only helped them to mourn and get adjusted to life in Canada, but we have also become like parents and grandparents
to the children. The mom trusts us to take the children on outings, and we are able to contribute to their educational, fitness and recreational experiences. It is like having an adopted family, and they love and appreciate us as their own.
Friendship. If we are honest, we had stereotypes about them, and they had stereotypes about us (Westerners/Middle Easterners/ Christians/Muslims). These evaporated over time and now we are friends. We anticipated helping them for a season and then winding things down, but the reality is, we have become friends and now get together on a regular basis, not because we have to, but because we want to. We shared something incredible together and it fused a friendship.
If we are honest, we had stereotypes about them, and they had stereotypes about us… These evaporated over time and now we are friends.
mosiac: How can a church be more welcoming to refugees? What would be one piece of advice you would give?
FB DAUPHIN: Don’t wait. Find out who sponsors refugees in your area and get in on it. This is the Kingdom of God in action.
SCBC: The most important thing is to educate the congregation, and give the church plenty of time to ask questions, and then address their concerns before the family arrives. While we were in the application stage, we heard a lot of concerns about security screening, and we assured them that the family has been fully screened. Now that we have started spending time with the family, our church couldn’t be more welcoming.
If you have any reservations about sponsor- ship, please take the time to visit refugee families already in Canada, and don’t be afraid of the lan- guage and cultural barriers… the language of love is universal. God will always show a way when we love our neighbours.
RIVERCROSS: Once these folks arrive in Canada, they are no longer refugees. They are now Canadians. Syrian Canadians. We have had to catch ourselves talking about “the refugee family”, when in reality that is not a fair way to keep referring to them. No one wants to be solely identified with the worst experience of their life.
As the Church, we need to open our hearts and minds to the world around us. We must
not only see the pain and despair from afar, but we must do something about it in our own part of the world. The opportunity to welcome and work with refugees offers lifetime benefits and friendships and witness. We are able to see into their world, learn from them, enjoy their culture, and help them embrace their new culture they are finding themselves part of. The Church has a responsibility, but also an opportunity, to rediscover its mission and rekindle the kind of love that Jesus would have us show to our neighbours.
Editor’s Note: We wish to express our thanks to these three churches and the many others who have shared their experiences with us