Friday, 9 September 2016

The benefits of private refugee sponsorship

Canada is unique in the world in having a program, the Privately Sponsored Refugee (PSR) program, wherein private citizens can form groups to sponsor and help settle refugees.  In 1986, this program won the UN’s Nansen Medal, the only time a whole country has been recognized by this refugee-focused award.  

Based on Canadian immigration department studies, refugees settled through the PSR model have much better long term outcomes than those who are settled by Government agencies.  For example, when compared to Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) after a year or two, PSRs have higher levels of English proficiency, are more likely to be working and at higher wage levels, are less likely to be relying on government agencies or financial support, report greater connection to their community and to the country and are less likely to return to their previous home country. 

There are a number of other very important direct and indirect benefits of the PSR model for settling refugees versus the more common Government-agency settlement model.  To begin with, since PSR’s are largely or wholly paid for out of private donations, this refugee settlement program is much more cost effective, from a Canadian taxpayer point of view.  Furthermore, for the private citizens who are involved, it is a real participatory, community-building experience which helps foster neighborhood relationships, enable cross-cultural understanding, build grass-roots support for refugee issues, increase appreciation for our communities and our country, and enhance citizens’ awareness of the challenges faced by the lower-income segments in our society.

Despite its many documented benefits versus the GAR model for settling refugees, government support for the PSR model has been modest, to say the least, over the last 40 years and it remains an under-promoted and underfunded program.   The general public’s interest and participation in the program has undergone enormous volatility over the years.  There was a major peak in 1979 / 1980 as a response to the so-called Vietnamese Boat-People crisis.   Then, after a long period of relatively low volumes with the exception of a spike during the Bosnian war, interest in the program has once again dramatically risen during the last 12 months as a result of the Syrian Crisis.  Outside of these 3 peak periods, participation in this program has been narrowly focused in faith communities or ethnic organizations rather than having a broader involvement from Canadian society as a whole.

It is also important to note that although PSR groups are executing on an important, sensitive, and complex project, that of settling and integrating into our communities vulnerable and, in some cases, traumatized people from widely different backgrounds, the Canadians who undertake these projects do so with little or no support, training, experience or qualifications.  The lack of advocates or centralized comprehensive resource supports for PSR groups leads them to feel like they are ‘going it alone’, ‘making it up as they go along’ and ‘reinventing the wheel’ in their efforts to settle refugees. 

By Andrew FitzGerald. This post has also been published on the Canada4Refugees blog. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Cooking with Nahla

Our group members spent a lot of time since the Abdallahs' arrival in December helping the family members navigate life in Toronto, trying to introduce them to Canadian life and culture. 

We realized that this has often been a one-way street. Because of the language barrier (which is getting smaller every day!) it has been more difficult for the family to share their culture and traditions with us. 
But one language is universal: food! We were very fortunate that Nahla, the matriarch of the family, and her daughter-in-law Sawsan showed us how to prepare some of their very delicious Syrian dishes. When we ate together – after patriarch Abdallah had given a beautiful Arabic blessing – we truly felt like one big family.

The women do not follow written recipes but we have taken notes of the ingredients and steps involved in making the dishes – we hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we did!

Chicken à la Nahla

1. Remove skin from chicken drumsticks, place them in big pot with boiling water
2. Add cinnamon powder and cinnamon sticks, cardamom, onion slices, salt, ginger, turmeric and coriander. Boil chicken in broth for 45 minutes
3. Peel potatoes, cut them into thin slices
4. Deep fry potato slices in batches, set aside.
5. Deep fry onion slices
6. Place one layer of fried potato slices on bottom of large casserole.
7. Add boiled chicken drumsticks on top. Add some of the chicken stock. Keep the rest for rice.
8. Add sliced onions and another layer of deep-fried potato slices
9. Put casserole in oven for 20 minutes or cook on stove for another 20 minutes
10. Mix freshly-squeezed lemon juice and minced garlic. Pour some of the mixture over the chicken casserole before serving

Syrian salad

1. Cut cucumbers, green peppers, carrots and tomatoes into small pieces
2. Chop mint, parsley and green salad
3. Mix in large bowl
4. Pour rest of the lemon-garlic mixture over the salad before serving


1. Cut pita bread into thin stripes
2. Deep-fry pita slices until crispy. Put aside
3. In large bowl, mix 2 containers of joghurt with two containers of hummus.
4. Add some Tahini
5. Add garlic, 1 spoonful of cardamom and mix well
6. Empty two chickpea containers with liquid into cooking pot, boil for a few minutes
7. Place pita strips on bottom of casserole dish
8. Ladle joghurt-hummus mix on pita strips
9. Sprinkle dish with cayenne pepper and cumin
10. Ladle heated chickpeas onto dish
11. Heat up ghee (optional), pour over Fatteh before serving

Rice à la Nahla
Fatteh, salad and Nahla's chicken dish

1. Mix dry rice with oil and ghee
2. Add salt, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and coriander
3. Add left-over chicken stock, with come chicken pieces
4. Bring to boil

By Claudia Blume

Friday, 8 April 2016

URGENT: Please tell your Liberal MP before Monday that the government needs to continue its support for Syrian refugees

As you may have read in the newspapers, it has become apparent to Private Sponsorship groups that the Canadian Government is pulling back in its support for Syrian Refugees now that they have met their election promise.

Yesterday the Ripple Refugee Group's chair Andrew FitzGerald, along with former Toronto mayor John Sewell and two other representatives from Private Sponsorship groups, had a private meeting with Immigration Minister McCallum in order to encourage continued Canadian government prioritization for the Private Sponsorship program for Syrian Refugees.

As there is a Liberal Party caucus meeting early next week to review their overall commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis, we encourage all of you to write to your local Liberal MP (you can find contact details for your MP here) copying Immigration Minister McCallum (email: to emphasize your strong support for continued focus on Syrian Refugees initiatives.

In particular, we want to communicate that 

1) We don't agree with the Government that any new applications, even if they are fully paid for and settled by private sponsorship groups, should be subject to overall refugee caps and be processed in the normal 24 - 42 month time frame.   This is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and we have mobilized and privately-funded citizen groups ready to help out - lets not waste that resource!  

If this becomes government policy, as it looks likely to happen, then thousands of Private Sponsorship groups who have raised money and made preparations to settle Syrian families will have to wait several years or more before their applications are processed. 

2) Domestic and overseas immigration staffing resources should be restored to Feb. 2016 

levels to expedite the arrival of already approved Syrian refugee families to Canada.  Waiting until the end of 2016, or early 2017, as the government has indicated is the new timeline, for those whose applications are already in process puts the refugee families in danger given their precarious overseas living arrangements. 

We are at a turning point in this nation-wide, grassroots humanitarian project - but without government support it will all come to naught.  

Please do communicate with your Liberal MP and Minister McCallum as soon as possible to convey your strong support for this historical grassroots humanitarian initiative that Private Sponsorship groups represent.

Monday, 4 April 2016

New government policies put a damper on private refugee sponsorship

In the past six months, thousands of highly motivated people across Canada have come together to form sponsorship groups to bring in Syrian refugees, raising millions of dollars to support them in their first year. Given the priority the new Canadian government was giving to Syrian refugees, most have been optimistic that a family would be assigned to them soon and arrive within a few months.

But at the end of February, when the government had fulfilled its election promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees, it quietly and without warning changed its policy and the flow of refugees to sponsorship group was almost completely stopped. It appears that the majority of the 8,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees who have arrived so far (17,000 were government-sponsored) were old applications initiated and in the pipeline long before the Alan Kurdi photo and therefore not part of the nationwide community private-sponsorship trend that started in September 2015.
To voice their anger about the change in government policies, more than 300 members of sponsorship groups gathered in a downtown Toronto church on March 30. The very emotionally charged meeting was convened by John Sewell, the former mayor of Toronto, who summed up the main policy changes that will result in a considerable delay in bringing in Syrian refugees:

1. The government has released all re-assigned and temporary staff processing Syrian refugees and closed processing centres in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This means we are back to a system where it takes months to process and register a family through regular visa offices.

2. The government has released re-assigned temporary staff in the Winnipeg processing centre and no longer prioritizes Syrian families. Processing times used to be 10 days; now we are back to a three month processing time for a family.

3. There will no longer be a special priority for Syrians: they will be treated like other refugees, which means a long wait.

Syrian refugees will also have to pay for their flights to Canada again.

Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary of John McCallum, the Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship, was at the meeting and told us that sponsorship applications received until midnight on March 31st – the next day!- would most likely still be processed in 2016, or early 2017. Obviously, a day’s notice for this deadline was not enough for most people to finish filing their application.

What can you do?

Write a letter to minister John McCallum ( and copy his parliamentary secretary Arif Virani ( and your own MP (or better yet meet with your MP) to highlight / convey your displeasure and emphasize the following messages:

a) Government staffing / processing capacity should be restored immediately to pre-Feb, 28th levels in order to process existing and upcoming Syrian refugee applications as quickly as possible

b) No caps should be put on private sponsorships of Syrians since they are privately funded and settled - and therefore don't strain the government's settlement agencies or budget.   Furthermore, from an economic point of view, this would be a stimulus measure as there is upwards of $30mm sitting in bank accounts waiting to be spent by private sponsor groups in settling refugees. Spending this money would stimulate the economy more than leaving it sitting in bank accounts.

c) All Syrian applications currently in the pipeline, or submitted within the next 3 months, should be expedited as the Syrian situation is a huge, unique and global crisis and deserves our support and focus.

d) Overall, the government should seek to support private sponsorship groups that have formed across the country - and not abandon us in favour of their own Syrian GAR refugees.  They can do both. Privately sponsored refugees are more successfully settled compared to agency-settled refugees and have better long term outcomes (income, English skills, remaining in Canada etc.)

Please do share this information with your networks and encourage people to communicate with their MPs and Minister McCallum - we are at a cross-roads and the more people who clearly communicate with the government on this issue about what we expect government policy should be, the more likely that the Syrian refugee crisis will get the attention it deserves and private sponsorships will get the support they warrant. 

For more information and updates on this issue, go to the Toronto For Refugees blog.

What do these policy changes mean for the Ripple Refugee Group?

We had handed in applications for two more families to Lifeline Syria, but they had not been sent to the government yet. One of our group members worked until the early morning after the March 30 meeting to finalize these applications with the Lifeline Syria team to meet the March 31 deadline. We are working on the applications for two more case files and hope that the government will extend the deadline – if not, we may have to wait for a year or even longer before they will be able to come to Canada.

Friday, 5 February 2016

"Soon, all of Canada will be our family"

"We were humiliated in Lebanon. Here, we're happy and feel respected,' the Abdallah family told the CBC's Piya Chattopadhyaya in a lovely documentary that aired on the The Current this morning. Thank you to the CBC for letting the (very articulate) family tell their story in their own words - from their traumatic experiences in Syria and Lebanon to a hopeful new beginning in Canada. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Waving Hand Emoji: How technology helped us connect

Our sponsored Syrian family was all the ways different from us you’d imagine: war refugees, languishing in Beirut for three years, Sunni Muslim, and Arabic-speaking only, according to the government profile. For our sponsor group, technology has been a great relationship accelerator and equalizer in this most intense period and undertaking.

Technology, that same hardware and social media platforms that are supposedly decaying our relationships and making us lonely, has made possible lovely and essential moments of connection between us and individual members of the Abdallah family. Here are five favourites:

  1. Glimpsing our family on TV for the first timeFar from the ultimate in being alone with everyone, it was on tv we first glimpsed our family. Seeing them disarmed any fear about who we were sponsoring. Watching them take care of each other, how they interacted, made us want to do even more. They’re just like us. At the same time, the tv was a glass wall: the Abdullahs couldn’t see us, didn’t know we existed, and that people in Canada cared about them 
  2. Seeing each other on Skype. And then, they could see us! We yelled across the valley between Toronto and Beirut over the internet. Because we now heard each others’ tones of voice and choices of words, we had agency in communicating our own messages and how we’d receive the others.
  3. Smartphones keep us connected. The Abdullah family had smartphones, and remained in contact with family in Syria via WhatsApp and Facebook while in Lebanon for three years. On his first day in Canada, Anas and I exchanged WhatsApp contact details for file transfers and other admin uses
  4. Yes, a waving hand emoji. But on November 26, I woke up to… a waving hand emoji. I remember feeling Whoa, there’s a connection here! Was it deliberate? I texted Anas back a greeting of my own and got a thumbs up. Instant messages act much like postcards: authentic feelings pinged in asynchronous snapshots. The connection I felt with Anas was real; turns out we get along quite well.
  5. SayHi Translate brings us closer. 75 percent of the time, this SayHi Translate voice translation app saves the day as a game-changer in communicating and planning. The rest of the time, it’s a source of great hilarity, which only brings us closer.
There’s also time to connect through silence. The Abdallahs have had close relatives killed by snipers, die of other trauma, and disappear altogether. The Abdallahs were solidly middle-class, and it will take years to build their lives again. Recently, of course, we’ve been watching cities under siege in Syria and people dying of malnutrition. Some things are unutterable for the Abdallahs, and would be impossible for us, their Canadian sponsors, to understand. In these moments, we’ve learned to turn off the technology and let the silence connect us.
Some chose to sponsor a family through a church congregation because that means more hands to do all the front-line and hands-on work, and that’s understandable. But for me, it’s the quotidian that has been the richest part of this experience: drives to the dentist and Service Ontario, zoo visits, winter clothes shopping. The quotidian, made possible by the technology that we have to connect us. 

This post by Rebecca Davies was first published on the YongeStreet blog.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A healthy beginning

We are in the fortunate position of having a strong medical contingent in our group - four physicians and two nurses! 

They spent a lot of time researching health care options and have set up many medical and dental appointments for the family after their arrival. Special arrangements were made for Oais, the mobility-challenged son of the Abdallahs, such as the acquisition of a special bed and a wheelchair. 

Our group member Nancy Graham, a nurse with Toronto Public Health, has put together an information sheet about health-related matters that will hopefully be as useful to other sponsorship groups as it was for us - please click here.

At Service Ontario registering for Ontario Health Insurance (OHIP)