With the United States border largely closed to refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, a Pittsburgh group is funding churches in Canada to resettle families from the troubled country.
The organization, Ananias Mission, was co-founded by Ed Wethli, who, like many people around the world, had been moved by the heart-wrenching tales of the refugees. He was introduced to a Syrian man by a business contact involved with the Pittsburgh coffee company that he owns in early 2014. By Christmas Mr. Wethli brought the man, his wife and two sons, who had visas to visit the United States, to stay in his home in the city’s affluent suburb of Cranberry Township.
While they applied for asylum and settled into a new life in the U.S., their relatives back home continued to face persecution and violence. But there wasn’t much to do to help, given restrictions on refugees coming to the U.S.
“We’ve kind of shut our doors, which is a shame,” says Mr. Wethli, founder and president of Kiva Han Coffee Co., a coffee wholesale roaster and distributor with a chain of 29 coffee bars.
“Ignited” by the photo in September, 2015, of the lifeless three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on a Turkish beach, he called some friends together and formed the Ananias Mission, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing the five families related to the original one he helped – 23 people in all – to safety.
Mr. Wethli and Jennifer Allison, a litigation attorney who joined the group, started raising funds and heard that Canadian Catholic churches were able to sponsor Syrians as private organizations under Canada’s more open refugee system. They found the closest church to Pittsburgh was in Fort Erie, Ont., and cold-called the offices of the Diocese of St. Catharines, which is responsible for 45 parishes in the region. There they were put through to Margaret Jong, chair of its newly formed refugee committee.
Coincidentally, “She said, ‘We’re having our first meeting this afternoon to talk about sponsoring Syrian families.’”
Ms. Jong, vice-chancellor of the diocese, says the community was determined to help refugees, but amassing the funds required for sponsorship was a gargantuan task, amounting to about $35,000 in cash and in kind to support a family of four through its first year in Canada. “The timing of Ed’s call was exceptional,” she says.
Ananias began providing the financing and completing the steps for the five families to be sponsored. They arrived in Canada in October, 2016, among a total of 19 Syrian families brought in by 22 parishes in the diocese, with five more still expected to come.
Mr. Wethli says that seeing how well the newcomers have done is encouraging. “They’re in school, they’re in college, they’re working two and three jobs,” he notes. “They realize the opportunities they have in Canada and they’re diving right in.”
Ms. Jong explains that at the end of the 12-month sponsorship period, the families are expected to be employed, living independently and able to communicate in English adequately. “They’ve done well, they’re integrated into the community and their kids are adjusting,” she says, and they’ve developed close personal connections with their sponsors, which extends to the Pittsburgh partners.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of this without their financial and moral support,” she says. “Ed and Jennifer are very much members of the family.”
Ms. Allison says the U.S.-Canada sponsorships are complicated; the fact that everything worked out is a miracle. “If you were going to sit down and build a non-profit to help Syrians, I don’t think you would think up a model like this,” she says. “It’s about saving lives, and this is the path that’s emerged.”
She and Mr. Wethli have made a number of trips to Ontario to visit the newcomers, who are related to the family that originally came to Pittsburgh. They look forward to a big reunion one day, as the U.S. family is in the asylum process so not able to leave the United States.
Those in Canada will be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship in the autumn of 2019, then they can go across the border to visit their loved ones. The closest they have been so far is standing on either side of Niagara Falls, which Ms. Allison says was “heartbreaking” but meaningful.
“They waved to each other, they were on cell phones, they were laughing and crying,” she says. “They thought that would never happen, and it did.”
A family waits, hopes overseas
The Ananias Mission in Pittsburgh is looking to sponsor more Syrian refugees to come to Canada, says Mr. Wethli, president of the board of the group. “We’d love to keep the effort going; if we can find other churches in Canada that can help us, it would be wonderful.”
Ananias has so far raised US$500,000, which has been used to sponsor five refugee families who have come to Ontario, as well as help pay for others where parishes in the St. Catharines Diocese could not come up with the required funds.
Ananias additionally supports programs that offer food and other necessities to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whom Mr. Wethli and Ananias’s Jennifer Allison have visited on the ground there. Through these trips they have found more families they would like to help bring to Canada.
They include Aboud Dali, 35, his wife Maral Hartunian, 32, their two children Aftinios, 10, and Solange, 5, and Mr. Dali’s parents Aftinios, 60, and Solange Hajjar, 52, who fled to Beirut from Aleppo five years ago. Interviewed through an interpreter, Mr. Dali says he has high hopes of being sponsored by a Canadian group. “Everything we hear about Canada is so positive. We hear that the people are very friendly and helpful,” he says. “I’m looking forward to living in a peaceful country.”
He works seven days a week as a hairdresser just to pay for food and rent, so he is unable to afford to send his children to school. “We try to teach them at home, but we don’t have the proper supplies.” Mr. Dali sees Canada as a place where “my children can go to school and walk out of our home with no fear of persecution and harassment, no fear of being hated or beaten.” His biggest dream is to take his kids to a restaurant.
He is grateful that the Pittsburgh group is willing to help his family try to get to Canada. “It is as if an angel reached down into our world to help us when we feel like we are dying,” he says. “I feel like Canada is like a big boat that is rescuing us from drowning in the sea. I pray that Canada is able to help us.”
Margaret Jong, vice-chancellor of the Diocese of St. Catharines, says the parishes there would like to undertake more sponsorships, but the process and numbers in the Canadian program have slowed and many parishioners are now “tapped out.” She has contacted other dioceses in the country to see if they can assist more refugees to come to Canada through Ananias.
Mr. Wethli calls Canada “a model” and finds its people more open-minded than Americans. As well as raising funds in the United States for the Canadian sponsorships, he tries to raise awareness about the refugees’ plight. “Most of us are here because we had the doors opened to us,” he says.
“It makes me sad going up to Canada and seeing how the Syrian families are adjusting and contributing to their communities; I’d love to see that here,” he says. “The United States has always led. We don’t lead any more.”
He’s especially discouraged to see how Syrians like the Dalis “desperate to start a new life” are living in Lebanon, without decent jobs or a future for their children.
“The world has turned its back on these people,” he says. “I wish I had millions and millions of dollars and I wish there were lots and lots and lots of churches to offer sponsorships in Canada, because there are so many people that need help.”