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Minister Wes Denyer, who leads a refugee sponsorship group, is seen at the Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto on Friday. His group has been offered a ‘replacement’ family

Mark Blinch

The east-end co-op with a nearby mosque was secured, the furniture collected, the car seats chosen. But one thing was missing.

The family of Syrian refugees sponsored by Presbyterian minister Wes Denyer and a committee of three Toronto churches was stuck in Jordan, apparently awaiting security clearance.

The Canadian government may have a solution: a "replacement" family, also Syrian refugees, but authorized and ready to travel. The alternate refugees will be offered to some 30 sponsor groups who have agreed to split the cost of settlement with the government.

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That has placed groups like Mr. Denyer's in an agonizing dilemma: Stick with their original family and leave a more prepared family languishing; or help someone new but sever ties with people they have been expecting for months and often know intimately.

The government has vowed to sponsor the original families whenever they clear health and security checks, but many private groups believe that would still leave the refugees feeling abandoned and with less support.

Mr. Denyer said the choice is painful.

"We are being asked to leave one of the families behind," he said. "And the question is, which one?"

Canadians who sign up for Blended Visa Office-Referred cases pick their refugees from a list prepared by the government, rather than choosing them directly. BVOR groups agree to financially support refugees for six months – with the government handling another six months – and emotionally support them for up to a year.

The current bind stems from a rush to sponsor Syrian refugees in the past year, which prompted the government to assign families for sponsorship before they had been cleared to travel.

That has led to a "mismatch" between the refugees approved for travel to Canada and those who have groups backing them in Canada, said Doug Earl, a member of the steering committee for Canada4Refugees, an advocacy group.

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He accused the government of draining resources from the processing effort once it met its target of 25,000 Syrian refugees landed in Canada in February, contributing to the delays.

"Had they not completely shut down the system of bringing in and resettling Syrian refugees back at the beginning of the year, when they reached their 25,000 mark, I think the system would have had some momentum that you would have seen the fruits of," said Mr. Earl.

The federal immigration department says that about 140 Syrian refugee families and 30 Canadian sponsor groups may be affected by the replacement program and that the replacements likely won't be offered for months. The delays naturally cause stress for the refugees, many of them living precariously in Jordan and Turkey, but they have also put some sponsoring groups in difficult straits, Mr. Earl said. Those who rented apartments for the prospective arrivals in the spring now have to decide whether to keep them, often at considerable expense.

"A lot of groups are reporting that their members have lost interest, or their lives have changed," said Mr. Earl. "There's a certain amount of attrition."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Nancy Chan said in a statement that funding was not the problem. "The delay is not a resource issue in terms of having the capacity to process these cases," she wrote.

But Mr. Earl says the delays point to a larger problem of lagging government interest once its banner target had been met.

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"I think there was a time back in the spring when it was possible to have created in Canada a critical mass of citizen sponsor groups," he said. "The poor handling of it has just dissipated all of that energy and all of that commitment that people had. It's just a tragedy, as far as I'm concerned."

The decision about whether to accept replacement families has caused strains within some sponsoring groups. The spokesperson of one such group in Belleville, Ont., asked not to be identified because she and the group's steering committee had not discussed the issue with their membership and anticipated a difficult discussion about how to proceed.

Mr. Denyer, of Toronto's Tri-Church Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Committee, said his group had engaged in more than one "heated debate" about what to do. The emotional tenor of the discussions has been set by the "sense of connection" they feel toward the family, a young Syrian couple with a six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. The group in Canada and the family have been texting back and forth for months; they have been linked since January.

The committee has raised some $60,000 and could support two families if given the chance, Mr. Denyer said – the original and the replacement. In a statement, the government said that offering more than one family to a group would be unfair, since there are so many sponsors seeking BVOR refugees.

The Toronto group hasn't had to make a decision yet, since no replacement families have been formally offered, but is leaning toward taking on the new family, with the aim of doing "the most good we can do, the most quickly," Mr. Denyer said.

But as he knows, that choice could have cruel consequences.

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"We wonder what would be the psychological impact on this family to find out that the refugee sponsorship group which they have here in Canada and which they've known about since January has sort of left them for someone else," he said.

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