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How a B.C. congregation brought 30 Syrian refugee families to Canada

The Papazian family, seen in their family home in Burnaby on Dec. 13, sitting to the left of the Christmas tree, sponsored the Cholakian family, seen right foreground, to come to Canada from Syria.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail is looking at people who have been touched by the refugee crisis in British Columbia, from sponsors and teachers to the refugees themselves. Today, a member of a church in Richmond explains how the congregation brought more than 90 people to the province.

At 300 members, the congregation at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Richmond is small. But over the past year, the church has sponsored 30 Syrian refugee families and brought more than 90 people to British Columbia.

Church member Eddie Papazian and his wife co-sponsored a family of four who arrived at Vancouver International Airport last New Year's Eve. Mr. Papazian spoke with The Globe and Mail about the sponsorship experience.

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How did you first get involved in the refugee-sponsorship process?

Part of our congregation are people that came from Syria, Armenians from Syria, some 10 years ago, some 20 years ago.

And when these problems arose approximately five years ago in Syria, we were approached by some of these people, very distraught family members, saying, "What can we do here, what can we do to help these families and their extended families still stuck in Syria?" … We started with families bringing other family members, and that evolved into, "What about other people?"

Why did you and your wife decide to co-sponsor a family? What was the decision process like?

The decision wasn't very hard. We just looked at each other and said, "Well, we need to help this family." I've been involved with the church for approximately 20 years, and it was a humanitarian thing to do.

What was going through your mind when the family arrived at the airport? Was it stressful?

I think I was stressed more for them. They were uprooting their entire lives, their homes, everything, just putting everything in a suitcase and arriving. The stress wasn't my stress, it was more of seeing them in a situation like this.

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What happened after you picked them up at the airport?

They arrived here after a very long flight, quite disoriented it seemed, but very happy at the same time. And we did what we needed to do in terms of getting them settled into their temporary accommodations, shopping, purchasing some gifts and so on. We let them sleep for a couple of days, of course; we didn't see them at all. After that, we were seeing them at our church almost once a week, personally we invited them over to our home several times. … We got the father a labourer job, he started working in February, 2016.

How long did it take to find the family permanent accommodation?

We [initially] arranged accommodation through someone … on a temporary basis, until we started looking for a two-bedroom apartment in the North Burnaby area. Roughly within a month we were able to find them a place and get them set up.

Has being a refugee sponsor been an expensive process?

Both for the church as a sponsor, and my wife and I as a co-sponsor, our responsibility is to look after them, officially, for 12 months. Some of the families that are coming, they do come with some financial resources, enough to live on a tight budget. But with the help of the church, we've collected donations and we've given each family a large shopping spree at the beginning. And then myself and my wife, we've contributed to the family. The [total] cost, at a minimum, is about $30,000 a year. We're talking about shelter and food, not much else. … We had a fundraising campaign about a year ago in anticipation of people coming and it did quite well, it's syriahelp.ca.

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How often do you see the family now? How are they doing?

They're doing really good. … I do think they're starting to miss home. The first six months, eight months, I think [there is] the excitement of a new place, new things to see, new cultures to experience. Now, I can feel, and talking to the father as well, there are some difficult moments of missing the life that they had, the kids missing their friends. They also have other family members that are still there [in Lebanon, after fleeing Syria]. We've started the process of bringing them. I'm the co-sponsor of that family as well.

What would you to say to someone who's thinking of becoming a refugee sponsor?

The people that we've selected so far, the people that we've brought, they're all so grateful and they're all hard-working people. They just want to land on their feet. … We haven't had any issues with any of the families. I would just encourage them to do it, tell them the reward outweighs whatever cost or sacrifice they may have to put up.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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