In a sermon in January, Rev. Christopher White spoke about the plight of refugees and showed photos of their exodus from war-ravaged Syria. The desperate images and his rousing words moved many at the red-brick Fairlawn Avenue United Church in Toronto.
A team of volunteers soon formed to solicit money and gather furniture and clothing to sponsor a Syrian mother and her three daughters for a move to Canada. With tens of thousands of dollars quickly raised, the Toronto church has long been ready to help the United Nations-approved family, but the sponsorship bid is still in the queue.
Mr. White is worried for the family's safety. The woman, whose first name is Siham, had been documenting human-rights abuses in Syria for Amnesty International and the UN. She fled to Lebanon with her children after a sniper killed her husband three years ago.
"She is on a blacklist. If they deport her to Syria, she will disappear," Mr. White said Sunday. "We have to do everything we can to keep her safe.
"I'm hopeful that the message on the urgency of this family and other families is being heard," he said.
Mr. White doesn't know what has stymied the family's entrance to Canada or whether the sponsorship application was ensnared in a Canadian government audit of some Syrian refugee files. Other groups working to bring displaced Syrians to Canada contend processing delays may have had serious consequences for refugees struggling to find food, shelter and other necessities of life. These groups are supposed to be partnering with Ottawa to aid refugees, but one refugee advocate said his organization is unclear on the federal government's plans.
"It's been very hard to know what exactly the government's plans have been or are going to be," said Rob Shropshire, who is with the refugee sponsorship program at Presbyterian World Service & Development.
The Globe and Mail revealed last week that the Prime Minister's Office directed Canadian immigration officials in the spring to stop processing UN-referred refugees, one of the most vulnerable classes of Syrian refugees. At the same time, an audit was ordered of all Syrian refugees referred by the UN in 2014 and 2015.
The processing halt was in place for at least several weeks. The additional scrutiny meant some Syrians had to wait longer to secure asylum in Canada in the midst of a global refugee crisis.
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has told The Globe that the government was concerned about the integrity of the system and wanted to ensure that security was not compromised. The processing of privately sponsored refugees, who are referred by their Canadian sponsors and not by the UN, continued through this period, he said.
Mr. Shropshire noted that the Canadian government had forwarded very few UN-referred refugee candidates to the organization until recently.
"It was maybe two weeks ago that we suddenly got 50 cases," he said.
Ratna Omidvar, chairwoman of Lifeline Syria and executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange think tank at Ryerson University, said UN-referred refugees are generally in need of urgent resettlement.
"No one is suggesting that security be overlooked, but the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has done its own vetting. They use biodata. They use people on the ground. And I'm sure we ourselves, the Canadian visa officers themselves overseas, do all this," Ms. Omidvar said. "And then to have the PMO's office stop and say, 'We're going to have another look,' is highly unusual."
Ms. Omidvar wants Canada's sponsorship process to become more responsive and transparent. More than 2,000 Syrian refugees have died trying to escape the region and half a million have arrived in Europe this year.
The Conservatives have promised to hasten processing and welcome 10,000 refugees by September, 2016. Citizenship and Immigration told The Globe that Canada issued visas to 308 UN-referred refugees from Syria through the first eight months of this year, compared with 1,513 privately sponsored refugees.
Mr. White is optimistic that efforts to speed up the process will soon bring refuge to the Syrian family sponsored by the Fairlawn Avenue church, although he hasn't received official word yet. The woman's eight-year-old twin girls, Jana and Joudy, have been learning English while they await a move to Canada.