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Experts warn of realities of sponsoring refugees

Jennifer Kuhl, left, and Ela Gunad have helped plan a public information session in Vancouver regarding refugee sponsorship.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

After their horror and despair over images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying lifeless at the edge of the Aegean Sea last week, Ela Gunad and a group of her socially conscious friends in Vancouver began wondering aloud what they could do to help with the refugee crisis.

Ms. Gunad and nine other women, all in their 20s and 30s, were interested in sponsoring someone fleeing Syria or another conflict zone, but none of them knew much about the process. So they created a Facebook group and planned a public information session next week at a local church, where an immigration lawyer, a former refugee from Vietnam, a church representative and others who have privately sponsored someone seeking asylum are scheduled to field questions.

"I just settled here by my own as well, but, also, I'm a concerned global citizen and if there is any responsibility I can take on I don't want to overlook that," said Ms. Gunad, a permanent citizen who immigrated to Canada four years ago from Turkey.

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The women are not alone in wanting to help, as many churches, community organizations and groups of private citizens across Canada have volunteered to step in, but experts warn the groundswell of goodwill could die out once the realities set in.

Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services at the non-profit Immigration Services Society of B.C., said it can take more than two years to secure approval for a private refugee sponsorship, and in an area as expensive as the Vancouver region it can cost upward of $40,000 to sponsor a family of four or five.

"The immediate reaction [to the crisis] is 'God, let's sponsor somebody, we can do it,' and not fully understanding or appreciating the complexity that is involved," Mr. Friesen said.

"While British Columbians have their hearts in the right place, this is a serious responsibility that cannot be taken lightly."

Before considering sponsorship, he said Canadians should donate money to the United Nations refugee agency or several other international development and faith-based groups working on the ground. Or they can give to one of the organizations that have been serving British Columbia's refugees for decades.

"This is the fastest impact you can make," said Mr. Friesen, who also chairs the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance lobby group.

Jennifer Kuhl, one of the Vancouver women organizing the information session at the church, said covering housing prices would be the biggest stumbling block to her sponsoring anyone, which is why she would want any group she joins to involve members of her parents' generation, the land-owning baby boomers.

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"Where do you put people when so many of us are struggling to find affordable housing?" she said. "I would want to [sponsor someone] with a fairly large group because my peer group is still in the student-debt, working-contract-jobs category."

Unfortunately, it would be irresponsible to settle a refugee fleeing a conflict zone anywhere else in British Columbia except the pricey South Coast, Mr. Friesen said. That's because most will need some form of trauma counselling and these services that cater to refugees are offered only in the Metro Vancouver area, he said. Some of Premier Christy Clark's $1-million pledge to help Syrians settling in British Columbia will go toward bolstering these services and possibly adding the option of Skyping such sessions across the province, he added.

"As recently as 10 days ago we had a same-sex couple from Iran that were sponsored by a group in the Interior and this couple have some physical and mental-health issues that just couldn't be supported [there] in an appropriate way," Mr. Friesen said. "So they chose to board a bus and move down to Vancouver."

On the other hand, Mr. Friesen said sponsors should be prepared for a bond that can last many more years than the initial 12-month period of someone's stay.

"Quite often the relationship evolves into a deep friendship where each person's life is enriched," Mr. Friesen said.

Soma Ganesan, founder and director of Vancouver General Hospital's Cross-Cultural Clinic, has seen hundreds of refugees fare well during their first few "extremely busy" months of settling down, only to experience mental-health problems, such as anxiety or depression, once their immediate needs of food and shelter are met.

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"All of their emotional difficulties start coming out," Dr. Ganesan said. "The trauma that they went through, either physically or emotionally, will affect their lives."

Dr. Ganesan, who was one of the Vietnamese boat people and came to Canada as a refugee in 1981, said the faith groups and private citizens who do end up sponsoring someone must be engaged listeners and be careful not to impose their culture or values on the new Canadians, which is "the last shock that they want to see."

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