A personal welcome

Private sponsors in Canada are paying refugees’ resettlement costs. But can – and should – such a programme be replicated elsewhere; or is it just a way for governments to save money? By Sian Griffiths.


It may be cold outside, but the welcome is warm: Ann and Nick (left) with the Al Khatoufs. © Vicky Assad

Just one day after President Donald Trump banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US, Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen – himself a former Somali refugee – recommitted Canada to welcoming ‘people in need of protection’. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: ‘To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada.’

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 21 million refugees globally, and 1.1 million of them are in need of resettlement. Every day, 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes; about 50 per cent of them are children.

In Canada, the welcome can be very personal: global citizen to global citizen. Alongside its government-assisted refugee programme, the country is unique in having a Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme (PSR). The policy was developed in the late 1970s after citizen groups – mainly church-led – demanded that the Canadian government do more to help refugees affected by the Vietnam War. As a result, PSR became an official part of Canada’s refugee policy and, in 1986, the People of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal, an award given to individuals or groups for excellence in service to refugees. The programme enjoys cross-party consensus, though disagreements sometimes occur over how many refugees to accept and under which programme.

PSR remains so popular that the government admits to being overwhelmed with demand, struggling to process a backlog of 19,000 applications for 45,000 refugees. Already, the programme has found homes for some 280,000 refugees over and above government-assisted places.

Care in the community

Since November 2015, Canada has welcomed nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees, about a third of whom have been privately sponsored.

Ann Hustis and her husband Nick Assad, who is of Syrian heritage, had been watching the Syrian tragedy unfold since the conflict began in 2011, but it was the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach, which spurred them into action. They were familiar with the PSR programme because friends had sponsored a Syrian family who were now part of the couple’s social circle.

Sponsors form groups which agree to assume financial responsibility and to care for refugees for at least a year. They organize furnished accommodation, food, transportation, schooling and English/French-language training. They take refugees shopping and help them settle in Canada. Most refugees find their feet fairly quickly and are entitled to work immediately – under this scheme they arrive as permanent residents.

Ann and Nick’s sponsor group ballooned to 45 people, including extended family, friends and neighbours. The group’s co-sponsor is the Anglican Church, which has much experience in refugee resettlement. ‘In a world where everybody is shutting their borders, we’re opening them up,’ says Vicky Assad, Nick’s niece and one of the sponsors.

Through fundraising and personal donations, the group raised C$80,000 (US$61,000) to look after three families. Ann, who took a six-month leave of absence from her job as a computer consultant, says she really enjoys being a sponsor: ‘It’s fun, social. You learn a lot about the families. They become part of your family. I am seriously considering taking the rest of my life off and just doing this! It’s very, very rewarding.’

A key principle of the private sponsorship programme is that it should be ‘over and above’ what the government does, not instead of it

Her experience has deepened her knowledge of the conflict in Syria and her understanding of the plight of refugees. ‘I have a big map on the wall in my home office, pinpointing exactly where they escaped, what route they took, what bridge they crossed at,’ she says.

The first family the group of sponsors brought to Canada were the Al Khatoufs, who are clearly grateful. ‘I’ve never been treated so well, not even by my family!’ says 41-year-old Ali, who was a house painter in Syria. He and his wife and four children have now settled into a comfortable three-bedroom home in an Ottawa suburb provided by their sponsors and are embracing the Canadian outdoors lifestyle, including visits to local farms for apple-picking and hayrides.

It is all a far cry from the dangers the family faced before arriving in Canada. In May 2012, they were forced to flee their home under bombardment. Thinking the conflict wouldn’t last, they took little with them and travelled the first 20 kilometres of their journey on foot. Later, they found shelter in a converted security guard’s office in Lebanon – but the conditions were very cramped. It was here that youngest daughter, Hiba, now three, was born.

Helping hands

Don Smith wanted to help, too. Having worked with church groups for nearly four decades, he is a veteran private sponsor who has helped well over 100 refugees, from countries as diverse as Vietnam, Czechoslovakia , Hungary, Rwanda and, now, Syria. The PSR programme, he says, also ‘saves the taxpayer money’ since private sponsors assume financial responsibility for the refugees.

Lisa Hebert, co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Capital Rainbow Refuge, has helped to sponsor refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. She says the programme gives Canadian LGBTQ activists a unique way to reach out to LGBTQ refugees across the world.

‘They are fleeing state persecution, from criminalization to the death penalty... They are on the run.’ Often, she says, it is their own families who want to hurt them.

It is hard to find refugee advocates who would criticize Canada’s Private Sponsorship programme. It is endorsed officially by the UNHCR, which praises it for ‘its ability to provide additional settlement spaces for refugees’ over and above those spaces provided by the Canadian government. The UNHCR also points out that ‘the involvement of civil society leads to better integration outcomes for the refugees being sponsored’.

The agency’s conclusion is backed up by a 2007 Canadian government study which found that PSRs become self-supporting far more quickly than those resettled through the government-assisted refugee programme – though the latter catch up over time. Don Smith attributes these results simply to ‘tender, loving care’. A government counsellor who works only during daytime hours can’t give the full-time personal support and commitment that private sponsors can – and clearly want to.

But the reason the programme works so well in Canada and has such widespread support is that it enhances, rather than replaces, government support for refugees. While the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) supports the programme (‘it can double the number of refugees who get homes’), its executive director, Janet Dench, says the government still needs to pull its weight. She says that a key principle of the programme is ‘additionality’ – that the PSR programme should be ‘over and above’ what the government does, not instead of it. And she adds a note of caution, saying that the CCR was ‘shocked’ when Canada announced its 2017 refugee levels. The PSR allocation of 16,000 was more than double the government-assisted refugee figure of 7,500.

‘The government part should be as high,’ argues Dench. ‘It’s disappointing the govern­ment isn’t doing more. The government is taking credit for the overall number of settled refugees without doing its fair share.’

Added value

But Ann Hustis believes that private sponsors should be taking the lead.

‘They do it much better than the government,’ she argues, while noting that the refugees do still get government support by way of free healthcare, schooling, child tax credits and other government services.

Government support such as this is key to the success of the PSR programme, but it cannot always be taken for granted. In 2012, the then-Conservative government cut benefits to thousands of failed refugee claimants and refugees from countries Canada deemed ‘safe’. Four years later, the new Liberal government restored the health benefits in full after Canada’s Federal Court struck down the policy, which it denounced as ‘cruel and unusual’ and in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The world began paying closer attention to Canadian refugee policy after images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally welcoming Syrian refugees with warm winter coats went viral on social media. Now his government is seeking to promote the PSR model internationally through its Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI).

Caritas, in the Catholic Diocese of Salford, is the first Canadian-inspired private sponsor in Britain to take in a refugee family – from Syria. ‘It’s all very ordinary and very human to want to help anyone who has faced such a terrible experience, and this community sponsorship scheme enables refugees to be helped by welcoming people,’ says Mark Wiggin of Caritas.

However, with austerity-driven governments across Europe looking for ways to pass on welfare costs to ‘Big Society’, there is a danger that adopting – and adapting – Canada’s approach could become a means of balancing budgets rather than ensuring more help for refugees.

Back in Canada, Lisa Hebert says that being a sponsor has transformed her life. ‘It just gives your own life value. Their hope for the future is very infectious. Refugees are survivors… They are people who have been brave enough to leave everything behind to find a new life.’

Sian Griffiths is a former BBC producer and reporter now based in Ottawa, who contributes regularly to Deutsche Welle and BBC radio. She has reported for The Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor.