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'Church sponsorship is better than government sponsorship'

June 26, 2017
Semula, with husband, Richard, and daughter, Danielle

Semula, with husband, Richard, and daughter, Danielle

From June 19-30, we will be sharing stories of Christian Reformed churches and individuals across the United States and Canada who have opened their hearts and homes to those fleeing from war and persecution. The following is the latest story in this series.

Mountainview CRC, Grimsby, Ontario - Semula Horlings arrived in Canada 10 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. Since then, she has helped Mountainview Christian Reformed Church in Grimsby, Ontario, to integrate other refugees into life in Canada.

Semula is a member of the Karen people of Burma/Myanmar, who have long been persecuted by the Burmese government. Many Karen became Christians in the 1800s when a Bible-carrying American missionary arrived, fulfilling an ancient Karen myth about a “white brother” who would come one day and bring a long-lost sacred book.

In 1993, after civil war broke out, 10-year-old Semula fled on foot under cover of darkness with her parents and brothers to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for the next 13 years.  Semula studied English and went to Bible school in the camp. 

Because of the continuing war and Semula’s father’s death at the hands of the Burmese military in 2000, the family did not want to return to Burma, but the Thai government refused them citizenship. 

“You can’t live a free life when you don’t have any citizenship,” says Semula.

Then the family heard that Canada was sponsoring refugees from the camp. Semula’s family was sponsored and settled in Hamilton, Ontario, where they began attending a Canadian Reformed Church. There, Semula met her husband, Richard, who is of Dutch descent.

Semula’s English skills were so good that she soon became an interpreter for other Karen people. John Plantinga, from Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton, mentioned Semula’s English abilities to people he knew and word quickly spread to Mountainview Christian Reformed Church, which also had sponsored Karen refugees.

Semula quickly stepped into a role at Mountainview where she could serve as a translator and support person for Karen families.  When a father in one of these families died, for example,  Semula helped them meet their immediate needs.

Newcomers to a country “don’t know the system,” says Semula. “I made a special support group to get the coverage for the funeral.”

Through Mountainview CRC, Semula also met Harry De Vries and Bruce Van Hoffen, who were serving as deacons in the church. Harry and Bruce would frequently call Semula before they paid visits to other Karen refugees, so that she could act as interpreter.

Two years ago, Harry and Bruce started an application with Semula to sponsor more refugees.  On January 25, 2017, Semula’s cousins, Lwehgey and Prescelda and their four children, arrived in Hamilton.  The children are attending school in Hamilton, and Mountainview is helping the family get settled.

“Church sponsorship is better than government sponsorship,” declares Semula. With church sponsorship, she explains, refugees can experience the world outside their own bubble – such as when Semula’s cousins are invited for lunch at people’s homes between church services.

“Families get more help, emotionally and socially,” says Semula. “There are lots of employers ready, potential jobs, and a social network.”