A grassroots response to the Syrian refugee crisis is growing in communities across Canada, combining the refugee sponsorship know-how of churches with the contacts and cultural knowledge within Arab and Muslim communities.
In Alberta, the odd coupling involves Mennonites and Muslims. In Manitoba, a broad coalition includes Christian churches and Arab and Islamic groups. And in Ontario, partnerships are popping up everywhere, from big cities to a small village church.
A staggering four million refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria are scattered in camps and cities around the Middle East. Western governments are under pressure to do more to bring them to safety, including calls for Canada to admit more people through its government-assisted program. Instead of waiting, faith groups are leading the way – often working together for the first time to sponsor refugees through the private system.
One of the more robust responses is taking place in Edmonton. The Mennonite and Muslim communities started working together in 2014, and since March of this year the partnership has reconnected 32 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt with relatives in Edmonton. By year's end, that number will exceed 150.
"I think the Mennonites were a ray of light; they brought hope to the table," said Ayub Umarji, board member of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association, the group that eventually partnered with the Mennonite Central Committee.
The Edmonton project would not have taken off without Donna Entz.
In conversations with her church colleagues, the 62-year-old Mennonite worker learned about 18 months ago that Canadian visa office referrals – the way that churches historically picked up private sponsorship refugee cases – were slow to come. The focus turned to Canadian families with Syrian relatives in refugee camps, and for that she looked to the Edmonton Muslim community.
Ms. Entz and her husband had spent 30 years in West Africa, much of that time in a Muslim village in Burkina Faso, where the local community helped raise her three children, tying the Entz family to Islamic culture in a profound way. They returned to Canada in 2010 to start a new chapter. "I remember thinking, 'Well, it's time we go meet the local imam,'" she said.
Those new-found ties with the Edmonton Muslim community came in handy when she went looking for an Islamic organization to collaborate with on a Syria refugees project. She visited mosques and met community leaders, and eventually found a partner in Mr. Umarji.
For the Christian group, it was familiar ground: It has sponsored approximately 20,000 people since the 1970s, many of them belonging to a wave of refugees fleeing conflict in Southeast Asia. But for the Islamic association it was new territory, getting involved in August, 2014, and scaling up its outreach and counselling support to newcomers.
Along with the Mennonites in a supporting role, there was the Muslim community itself – a ready-made network of Syrian and Lebanese Canadians who could help support the refugees, explained Sarah Hanafi, a member of the Islamic association and the Syrian refugees project.
"We also have people in our community who had relatives in refugee camps who are waiting to get out and waiting to move to a country to really establish their lives," said Ms. Hanafi, a volunteer and medical student.
Other Canadian faith groups are also collaborating. Last June, the Westworth United Church in Winnipeg called a meeting and invited secular and faith communities to discuss sponsoring one of three Syrian brothers and his family. The group, which eventually called itself Refuge, decided that night to sponsor all three Syrian men, their spouses and children – altogether six adults and 18 children currently in Beirut, said Barbara Wynes, member of Westworth United Church and chair of the Refuge steering committee. They are expected to arrive in October.
The coalition involves several churches, the Manitoba Islamic Association and the Syrian Assembly of Manitoba. Its fundraising target is $120,000. "It's an advantage to have people who know about Syria and the culture of Syria and about Islam – from the Manitoba Islamic Association – to understand the families that we're bringing," Ms. Wynes said.
In Ontario, in little Perth Road Village, raising the government-recommended amount of $32,000 to pay for the living costs of a privately sponsored refugee family in Canada for the first year seemed daunting to the United Church congregation of 50 people. The usual fundraising target is around $5,000, explained Cheryl Bird, a member of the church and the Save a Family from Syria committee.
Eventually, 21 churches that are part of the presbytery joined in to help. But it was reaching out to the Muslim community and partnering with the Islamic Society of Kingston that proved a turning point – and not just for fundraising. One of the members of the Islamic group had two separate groups of relatives living in a refugee camp in Jordan and in a cramped basement room in Lebanon. One family has arrived; the other is expected on Sept. 24.
"Other people have due dates for babies, we have whole families," Ms. Bird said.
The interfaith coalition raised money the old-fashioned way – bake sales, movie nights, a multicultural bazaar at a local Catholic high school. Then came the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach. Less than a week later, the group's online donation page, hosted by Canada Helps, has seen more than $30,000 in donations.
Inspired by the project that started in Perth Road Village, an interfaith coalition between the Muslim Association of Canada's Masjid Toronto and First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto is looking to sponsor two Syrian families.
Catholic and Jewish groups are also ramping up efforts.
The Archdiocese of Toronto, which has settled 120 Syrian refugees so far, said on Tuesday that it was setting an ambitious fundraising goal of $3-million in 100 days to bring 100 Syrian families to Canada. The initiative called on other faith groups to step forward.
Toronto's Congregation Darchei Noam is sponsoring a Syrian Kurdish family with the help of Lifeline Syria, which aims to train and help Canadians sponsor Syrian refugees, and language assistance from the Islamic Foundation of Toronto after the family arrives.
And in Oakville and Mississauga, the three Abrahamic faiths are teaming up. Maple Grove United Church, the Islamic Society of North America and Shaarei-Beth El synagogue recently completed forms to sponsor a family of seven in Jordan.
In Alberta, the Mennonite-Muslim partnership is getting noticed. Three other Muslim community groups are looking to partner on Syrian refugee programs – the goal is ultimately to bring more than 500 people to the province, according to Orlando Vasquez, programs director at the Mennonite Central Committee in Alberta and himself a refugee who arrived in Canada in 1984 from civil war-torn El Salvador.
At Edmonton's airport, crowds of more than 100 well-wishers – mainly Mennonites – would wait for an arriving Syrian family holding welcome banners and carrying gifts, said Mr. Umarji, 51 and a father of five.
"It's an amazing feeling when you're all waiting at the airport to greet one family and you see four or five little kids run out and you realize at that point in time that this child now has a future," he said. "Can you imagine that child living in a camp for 20 years? It's a crazy thought, but that's the reality."
With a report from Joe Friesen
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Mennonite Central Committee had sponsored more than 70,000 refugees since the 1970s. The correct number is about 20,000.