Toronto's Catholic Archdiocese announced an emergency campaign on Friday to bring an additional 100 families out of Syria and Iraq in response to the refugee crisis sweeping the Middle East and Europe.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, called on Catholics and "all people of goodwill" to unite behind the effort, which aims to raise $3-million over the next 100 days to pay the sponsorship costs of 100 families. The initiative is in addition to the Toronto diocese's efforts to resettle more than 600 refugee families from around the world this year, and comes just days after images of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy galvanized public sympathy for the long-simmering refugee situation.
"We should all be disturbed by what we see," Cardinal Collins said. "When a family feels their only hope is to flee their homeland to join hundreds on small, drifting boats, sliding a child beneath razor wire or packing into cargo trucks, we should not only be disturbed but also ashamed."
Cardinal Collins emphasized that although some may be skeptical of the role of faith groups in the public square, they have been central to refugee sponsorship and resettlement for years.
"This is what we do," he said. "We have a place at the table."
Toronto's Archdiocese opened a special office for refugees in 2009, and in its first six years it has resettled more than 2,500.
With the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying more than four million refugees are registered or waiting to be registered in the Middle East, 100 families is only a very small fraction of the number that will need to be resettled. But Cardinal Collins said small efforts, if they are replicated elsewhere, can add up to an important contribution.
"Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I say let's do one thing that's specific and fruitful rather than just say let's do a huge amount and not do it. We know we have the capacity to do what we're proposing to do and more. So we start with that and expand," he said.
The church has raised more than $500,000 for its refugee initiative in the past 72 hours, and if the target is exceeded, the extra money will also go toward resettling refugees.
Martin Mark, director of the archdiocese's refugee office, said he is encouraged by improving times for refugee processing in parts of the Middle East. What has taken two or three years in the past is now getting done in half the time, he said. He called on churches here to mobilize volunteers to assist with housing, finding language classes, schools, services and employment. If the appeal goes well and more families can be sponsored, all the better, he said. The church will sponsor refugees of all faiths and will not grant priority to Christians fleeing persecution, he said.
Dr. Mark will be part of a team travelling to the Middle East in October to help with the application process. He said his colleagues will identify people in need of protection then assess them for entry to Canada and help them with the paperwork.
Cardinal Collins said he takes inspiration from the first bishop of Toronto, Michael Power, who welcomed 40,000 Irish refugees in 1847 and died after contracting typhus from his contact with the migrants.
"He died in the house I live in, the rectory of the cathedral," Cardinal Collins said. "He saw what needed to be done and said, 'We've got to help.' He was a great man. … He died a martyr of charity."
He was joined at Tuesday's press conference by Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Nguyen, who came to Canada as a refugee in 1984 from Vietnam. Bishop Nguyen said seeing the recent images of refugees brought back many memories.
"That was us. We were like them," Bishop Nguyen said. "For a lot of people now, it touches them, but for us it brings back all those memories in a powerful way."