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Wendy Stueck and Jill Mahoney explore how Syrian families and the volunteers who've worked to welcome them are getting frustrated with a bureaucratic backlog that's prevented thousands from reaching Canada

Rami Albarko and his wife, Salma Shaker, are shown at their Vancouver home with their daughters, two-year-old Lilyan, left, and two-week-old Rosel. They are a government-sponsored Syrian refugee family who have been housed and supported by a private sponsorship group since arriving in Canada.


What's the holdup? How we got to this point

by Jill Mahoney and Wendy Stueck

When Justin Trudeau was elected on the promise of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada last year, scores of private sponsorship groups – co-workers, church members, neighbours and friends – rose to the challenge.

They raised thousands of dollars, rented and furnished apartments and lined up volunteers to drive, tutor and support refugees.

But now, many have nothing to do but wait. While the government has resettled more than 35,000 Syrian refugees in the past 13 months – 26,000 by the end of February – thousands more are caught in a bureaucratic backlog and have waited months in difficult conditions.

That total includes privately and government-sponsored refugees. This past March, under pressure from private sponsorship groups, Ottawa said it would do its best to process privately sponsored refugee applications received before March 31, 2016, by the end of this year or early 2017.

That commitment refers to about 12,000 PSR applications.

In British Columbia, private sponsorship groups frustrated by delays are planning a press conference Friday to highlight the plight of more than 100 refugees who have been matched with private sponsorship groups but have yet to make it to Canada.

Those refugees – many of whom were referred by friends and relatives already in the Lower Mainland – comprise mainly Syrian Kurd families who fled from Syria into northern Iraq, where they encountered more violence.

All of their applications were submitted before the March 31 deadline.

But interviews have yet to be conducted, leaving sponsorship groups like Vancouver's Or Shalom synagogue – which will play host to the press conference – frustrated.

"The volunteer programs are exactly that, volunteer – they can shout as loud as they want, but in the end, the government decides what it's going to do," says Maggie Hosgood, B.C. co-ordinator for the Refugee Advisory Group of the United Church of Canada, a government-approved "sponsorship agreement holder" that works with private groups. "And unless there is an election looming, they're not going to be swayed very much, in spite of how good your arguments might be."

Many sponsors caught in the processing backlog point to politics, arguing that now that the Trudeau government has fulfilled its campaign promise, its commitment has waned. They fault Ottawa for not ensuring adequate staffing, noting that levels dropped after the government met its initial goal of resettling 25,000 Syrians by the end of February.

"Clearly it's because the kind of resources that were available during the Syrian surge are no longer available. I think that's the single most determinant factor. That and also that there's now no longer a political will behind it," said Doug Earl, a member of the steering committee of Canada4Refugees, a group that advocates for sponsorship groups and refugees.

Eighty-four per cent of privately sponsored refugee applications submitted by the end of March were in process – meaning either under review or finalized – as of Nov. 20, according to an Immigration Department spokeswoman.

The government has assigned temporary duty officers overseas to help process cases, and those assignments will continue through the end of the year, the department said, adding that roughly 90 weeks of temporary duty had been assigned to help process refugee cases, including Syrian and non-Syrian refugees.

Sponsors' frustration is understandable but there is a bigger picture to consider, says Brian Dyck, council chair for the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association.

"The Syrian thing has been an exciting thing and it's been a wake-up call for Canadians about refugees," Mr. Dyck says.

"What we would like people to understand is that Syria is big, but it is not the only thing going on. A lot of our members are focused on cases that have been in the system for a long time, like five years or more … people's lives are in the balance, and people want to get action, but our reality over the years is that this has been a long process."

He'd like to see processing times reduced to 18 months or less, something that is likely to require additional government staff and resources overseas.

"The math is challenging these days – we've got a lot more cases going in than going out, and that needs to change one way or another," he says.

The SAH Association doesn't know exactly how many "constituent groups" there are across the country, but the number has surged over the last year or so. Before the Syrian refugee crisis, the Mennonite Central Committee – of which Mr. Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Co-ordinator – had fewer than 50 groups in five provinces. At last count, it had 436 in its database.

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Waiting for 'their' families, a church group takes matters into its own hands

by Wendy Stueck

In Vancouver, volunteers from Shaughnessy Heights United Church agreed to help government-sponsored refugee Rawaa Mahouk when the refugees they planned to sponsor did not arrive as soon as expected. From right, volunteers Elizabeth Kerklaan, Judy Neill, Brian, Rawaa Mahouk and helpers Jordanna Citrano and Luciano Mariani from First United Church help prepare a meal.

When Vancouver's Shaughnessy Heights United Church held a "Syria 101" session last year to discuss sponsoring refugees, about 100 people showed up.

By the end, about 70 had signed on as volunteers, reflecting an eagerness to help that hasn't waned since.

What has ebbed and flowed are those volunteers' expectations of when "their" family – currently living in a refugee camp in northern Iraq – will arrive.

The Shaughnessy Heights group completed an application in January, 2016, and hoped the family might arrive within a month or two. That didn't happen. The group wound up with an empty apartment on its hands. Through referrals, they found Rawaa Mahouk, a government-sponsored Syrian refugee who had recently arrived in Vancouver, and offered her housing and support.

The match proved a good one.

The Shaughnessy Heights congregation warmed to Ms. Mahouk. She seized on opportunities made available through her new contacts, including volunteering at a shelter in the city's Downtown Eastside and attending Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival. She also joined a fledgling catering business, Tayybeh, that features Syrian cuisine prepared by recently arrived refugee women.

The connection grew to such a degree that the Shaughnessy Heights group now wants to sponsor one of Ms. Mahouk's daughters, Racha – who in July fled with her husband and two children from the Syrian city of Aleppo to Lebanon, where they are now living "under the radar." On one recent outing, the parents were asked if they would be interested in selling one of their daughters into marriage, Ms. Mahouk says, speaking through a translator. Since then, the family has been reluctant to venture outside.

Church members recently launched a postcard campaign urging Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum to do more to help Syrian refugees get to Canada and provide adequate support, including language classes, once they arrive.

Shaughnessy Heights members also plan to attend a Friday press conference in Vancouver expected to focus on the plight of about 100 privately sponsored refugees – including the family they applied to sponsor in January – currently in northern Iraq.

Sponsors say the paperwork for those refugees has been done but that refugees have not been interviewed, primarily because of security concerns in the area. That's led to a search for alternatives, such as video interviews, but to date none have been arranged.

"Missions in Ankara and Amman have been actively looking into using secure video links to interview some refugees in northern Iraq but as yet the process has not proved stable or scalable," a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said Wednesday in an e-mail.

"Only a Canadian visa officer can make a decision on a refugee application. That authority and responsibility cannot be transferred to others."

Operational planning is under way for a follow-up trip into northern Iraq, but for security reasons, further operational details are not available, she added.

Church volunteers, meanwhile, write e-mails, lobby elected officials and hope.

"We have the finance, accommodation and settlement plan in place," the Shaughnessy Heights group wrote in a November e-mail to a government official about Ms. Mahouk's daughter. "And with Rawaa as co-sponsor, we are ready to receive and support them immediately."

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In Toronto, delays push volunteers' optimism to the limits

by Jill Mahoney

Father Waleed and mother Duaa are shown with their children Khaled, 6, and Lana, 3. The family is now living in Istanbul while waiting for their refugee applications to be processed. A private sponsorship group in Toronto is waiting for them and two others to come to Canada.

More than a year ago, 10 loosely connected Torontonians were full of hope as they prepared for what seemed like the imminent arrival of several Syrian refugees.

The private sponsorship group had quickly raised more than $50,000 and collected mountains of donated household goods. They took a Syrian cooking class so they could prepare familiar foods for their new friends and even began providing them with practical information, such as how to navigate the city's public-transit system.

But as long months have passed without the arrival of their six refugees, the group, based in Toronto's east end, with several members who work in the theatre community, has lost a free apartment and storage space as well as some of their optimism.

"It's painful to talk to them and to have any hopeful feelings because hope is really painful when it's been repeatedly quashed," said Jennifer Raine, a member of People of the East End Refugee Support Group. "And I think it's really emotionally draining to have any expectations about it for them."

Group members are in close touch with the six refugees – a husband and wife and their two young children who are now living in Turkey, as well as a man in Egypt and a woman in Saudi Arabia – and have bonded over text, e-mail and Skype. All their applications were submitted before the March 31 deadline that the federal government said would ensure processing by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

The members recently got a bit of good news: The single woman's application was approved and she is to travel to Canada on Dec. 28, and the single man was asked on Thursday to bring his passport to the Canadian embassy this weekend. But not knowing when – or if – the other refugees will be accepted wears on them. They are quick to point out that it is even more trying for the asylum-seekers themselves.

In e-mail interviews, two of the Syrians said the prolonged delays have left them confused and scared.

Omar, the single man, said he can't make work commitments in Egypt, where he fled to continue his studies after war broke out in Syria, because any day he may be approved to come to Canada.

"I was hoping to be in Canada early to start my new life," wrote the 25-year-old, who asked to be identified by his first name because of safety concerns for his family in Syria. He is working in a women's clothing store instead of in his field of agricultural engineering.

The single woman, who is 31 and asked to be identified using the pseudonym Mera because she also worries about her relatives' safety, said the delay had left her "scared too much."

After she settles in Canada later this month, Mera said she plans to learn new skills and "volunteer to help people in many charities." She previously studied applied chemistry, but in Saudi Arabia, where she lives with her parents, she says she cannot work, doesn't have health coverage and can't go out without being accompanied by her father.

The delay in getting approvals has caused safety issues for the family of four, who are living in Istanbul. In addition to being the targets of anti-Syrian sentiment, including being spat upon, the family was separated during the attempted coup in July as Waleed, the father, and his two children were stranded across the river when the bridges were closed, leaving Duaa, the mother, alone in their apartment, said Ms. Raine, a Toronto curriculum designer. (The family wanted to be identified only by their first names because of safety concerns.) The family is also struggling financially. Thinking that they would soon travel to Canada, Waleed, who works in Web marketing, gave up his job in January and the parents have survived on contracts and piecemeal work since then, said Nina Okens, a costume designer who is also a member of the Toronto support group. The lack of a stable income has meant that their older child has not been able to attend school full-time, she said.

The family had their interview in February, which their sponsorship group interpreted as a good sign and assumed they would arrive in Canada not long afterward.

"We've gathered all the stuff we need for them. We just need them," Ms. Okens said.

Now that Mera's application has been approved, Ms. Raine and her family are preparing to welcome her into their home until they can find her an apartment.

But as for the fate of the other five refugees, the sponsorship group members and the asylum-seekers themselves can only wait – and worry.

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In Vancouver, a refugee family finds a home

by Wendy Stueck

Lilyan Albarko smiles while at home with her parents.

Lilyan Albarko, who will turn 3 in January, greets visitors to her family's apartment with an excited "hello!" and within seconds introduces its newest resident: her sister, Rosel, two weeks old and sleeping in a crib next to the dining-room table.

For the little girls, this is home: a two-bedroom unit in a co-op housing block overlooking Vancouver's False Creek. For their parents, Sedar Shaker and Rami Albarko, the apartment is a milestone: their first long-term home since arriving in Vancouver as government-assisted refugees from Syria on April 12, 2016.

For Kathleen MacKinnon, the apartment is something else: part of a support network painstakingly assembled by volunteers over the past year and left untested when refugees who had been expected did not arrive.

"We got this place – and then we just waited and waited and waited," says Ms. MacKinnon, chair of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association Refugee Sponsorship Committee.

Like other groups across the country, the FCSNA last year mobilized to sponsor a refugee family from Syria. The group raised money, tapped volunteers to help with shopping and doctors' appointments and, in December, 2015, rented an apartment.

The FCSNA knew who "their" family was – a husband, wife and two daughters – and where they were: a refugee camp near Irbil, in northern Iraq.

But despite the family's applications being in the government queue, nothing happened.

In a city with a vacancy rate of less than 1 per cent, the empty apartment seemed an affront. This past March, the FCSNA contacted Mosaic, a Vancouver refugee and immigration agency, to say the False Creek group had a home available.

Soon after, Lilyan and her parents moved into the apartment. From here, Mr. Albarko can walk to work – a tradesman in Syria, he's now doing maintenance work at nearby Granville Island. The family is navigating the challenges that come with living in a new country and speaking a new language.

The couple met in Hasaka, in northeastern Syria, and fled to Lebanon, where they spent about three years – living in a cramped room and struggling to get by – before coming to Canada.

For Ms. Shaker, the most difficult part of adjusting to life in Canada is missing her family. She would love to help one of her sisters – still in Syria – come to Canada.

But she isn't sure how to go about that and has struggled to get information about whether such a thing is even possible.

The FCSNA, meanwhile, is looking for another apartment so the family can stay in the neighbourhood once the privately sponsored family arrives from Iraq. On a recent afternoon, a volunteer was helping Mr. Albarko with paperwork for a driver's licence. Others are on the hunt for affordable child care for Ms. Shaker, who wants to work when the baby is older.

As they help Ms. Shaker and her family, the volunteers are still waiting for their other, privately sponsored group, and worry that the family's health and spirits will suffer as the months drag on.

"I go on the [Citizenship and Immigration] website every Tuesday, and every Tuesday, it's the same message," Ms. MacKinnon says. "That you are in the queue."

The apartment is the family’s first long-term home since arriving in Vancouver as government-assisted refugees from Syria on April 12, 2016.

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How this eight-year-old Syrian refugee is learning English in a new land