Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based freelance writer
Like thousands of other Canadians, I was moved by the scale and horror of the Syrian refugee crisis to join a sponsorship group. Within six weeks, our group in midtown Toronto had raised over $50,000 and jumped through the requisite bureaucratic hoops.
We submitted our application in November, were matched with a family, currently in Saudi Arabia, in February and continue to await their arrival.
The delays attributable to the slowdown in refugee processing in the Middle East after the Liberals hit their target of 25,000, are frustrating at this end, and no doubt more than frustrating at the other.
Rather than just fume, a few smart Torontonians suggested pairing idling private sponsorship groups like ours with the hundreds of government-assisted refugees (GARs) stuck in hotels, as COSTI, the settlement agency responsible for them, scrambled to find housing. I signed up.
In mid-April, a volunteer translator and I knocked on the door of an apartment on the upper floor of a tower in the immigrant-rich neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park. The Hamouds (I've changed their name to protect privacy) were GARs who had moved in the previous day. The family of six welcomed us with uncertain smiles and no English. We sat on an ensemble of pea-green furniture in one corner of the otherwise empty apartment.
When I admired the spectacular view over the city, the Hamouds looked conflicted; the rent would absorb almost two-thirds of the monthly cheque they had just received from the government and they wanted to know if they could get out of the lease if they needed to.
As we took the family to the local mall to solve more immediate problems (an empty fridge, a diabetes medication that had run out) I learned more about the family's challenges – including a cancer diagnosis and relatives left behind in Turkish Kurdistan, where the family had lived for two precarious years after fleeing Damascus in 2013.
That afternoon, I tried to contact COSTI to talk to the Hamouds' case worker. Naively, perhaps, I has assumed that our role was to support COSTI in settling the family. My mails and calls went unanswered. Over the following weeks, further issues arose for which we needed COSTI's co-operation. A month after my first inquiry, a COSTI manager sent me the name of the case worker.
When I reached that person, she said she'd never heard of the family.
In their first month of independent living in Canada, the Hamouds' total contact with COSTI amounted to one phone call from a housing counsellor, who refused to give them his phone number, saying he would check in again. Talking to other private groups helping GARs (50 such matches were made in Toronto), I've learned this is not exceptional.
Our group stepped up. We've registered the family at schools and ESL centres, accompanied them to over a dozen medical appointments, enrolled them in summer camps, taken them to the library and food banks, and helped them deal with their mail (none of which they can read), including phone bills, hydro bills, an insurance policy and the long-form census. Teeth have been extracted; strep throat, cataracts and arthritis diagnosed. We've sourced a computer, television, odd jobs and employment in a downtown restaurant. Their apartment floors are now covered with donated rugs; under-loved oil paintings of Canadian landscapes hang on their walls.
We're consistently struck by the generosity of our own community and the excellence of the services available to families like the Hamouds. The one Arabic word we have all learned is shukraan (thank you), which the Hamouds can't stop saying.
This is not about pointing fingers or patting ourselves on the back, but to suggest there are cracks in the system.
What would this family have done without us? How are other GARs managing? If the government's settlement infrastructure was so overburdened, why not prioritize privately sponsored refugees whose groups await them with open arms and full bank accounts? And boost resources to settlement agencies, which in turn should be welcoming volunteers?
Maybe it was inevitable that the system would buckle under the pressure of absorbing 25,000 refugees in four months. But there's something profoundly inequitable in providing the Hamouds, with no English, little education and multiple health challenges, with virtually no settlement support while our family in Saudi Arabia, with two university-educated, English-speaking parents and no special needs, will be received by 15 eager volunteers.
Canada's two-streamed refugee system is unique. Our private sponsorship program has enabled Canada to take a leading role, second only to Germany, in settling Syrian refugees. But as other countries study our system, so too should we, to ensure that Canadians' extraordinary civic engagement is being fully and fairly harnessed.
It's rewarding to help such a family. My German friends look on in envy, as they volunteer to sort clothes in reception centres and watch the hate-mongering far-right gain ground. Tolerance and goodwill are among Canada's most valuable natural resources and they should be treated as such.