At a gathering at Queen’s Park in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 9, representatives of World Renew had the opportunity of spending an evening with the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Elizabeth Dowdeswell.
In celebration of 40 years of success of Canada’s private sponsorship program, the Lieutenant Governor recognized the importance of sponsoring community groups, faith communities, and organizations in welcoming refugees to Canada.
The Lieutenant Governor made special mention of the role of churches and faith groups in laying the foundation of the initial Private Sponsor of Refugees Program in 1979.
Back then, the Christian Reformed Church in Canada was the third church group to sign the agreement. Partnering with church groups throughout Canada, World Renew estimates that it has welcomed and resettled 7,500 refugees in Canada since 1979.
Among the attendees at the Lieutenant Governor’s event were Ida Kaastra Mutoigo, Canadian Co-Director of World Renew, and local church sponsors, Rebecca Shortt from Jarvis, Ont. and Anita Booy of Regina, Sask.
"The Lieutenant Governor remarked how incredibly generous the Canadian faith community is with regard to welcoming refugees into this country, especially the outpouring of support to refugees as a result of the Syria crisis,” said Kaastra Mutoigo as she reflected on the evening’s events.
“World Renew's experience with CRC congregations has shown this to be true. It is a testimony to our faith in action and inspiring that government leaders recognize our significant contributions to bringing a healing welcome. We continue to advocate for change and policies that can bring peace in our world," she added.
Shortt, a member of Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church in Jarvis, Ont. and the chairperson of Refugees of Hope, a sponsorship group of neighbouring churches in Norfolk County, said the evening was “confirmation that the work of sponsors is valued and we are not alone in our passion for protecting and assisting strangers and vulnerable people.”
For Booy, a sponsor from Sonlight Christian Reformed Church in Regina, Sask., the event was a welcome opportunity to connect with the wider community of sponsors throughout Canada, and even learn from each other’s experiences.
Booy and Shortt have worked tirelessly―along with many other church members and sponsors―to help ease refugee families’ transition to Canada. This has involved assisting families with housing needs, furniture, food, clothing, enrolment in English lessons, obtaining drivers’ licenses, and finding employment.
The transition to an entirely new country is seldom easy, and while there are many challenges for both the families and the sponsors, the bonds formed in this crucial first year often last a lifetime.
But the most powerful moments of sponsorship for the women have been listening to the stories of hardship, exile, and hope shared by the refugees.
The family currently sponsored by Refugees of Hope fled Iraq in 2014. For five years, they lived in Turkey where they lived on next to nothing―living in a cramped one-room apartment without any beds. The Turkish government prohibits refugees from working or going to school, so the family existed for many years without the most basic necessities, and with little hope for their future.
Shortt recalled, “The father of the family said to me, ‘Everything was taken from us: our home, our jobs, our education, our cars. You've given us our hope back.’ At this point he's near to tears and I'm crying. It's pretty powerful to know and experience the emotion and thankfulness that they have. And to be part of that, to know you've saved someone's life―it's overwhelming.”
These moments have also been the source of deep reflection on the meaning of their Christian faith, and sharing what they have with those who are the most vulnerable.
“As a person with many resources available, I recognize that we have a lot of wealth and privilege and I realize that many people are getting by with much less and in very difficult circumstances, so it makes me appreciate all that God has blessed me with and I want to share those blessings with others,” shared Booy.
For both Booy and Shortt, there is a sense of pride and quiet determination that comes from their work as sponsors and being part of the larger Canadian story of welcoming refugees to this country. As Shortt explained, “When the Lieutenant Government [talked] about the private sponsorship being 40 years old, knowing that World Renew has been one of the original partners, makes me feel proud… and that our group, Refugees of Hope, has an important role in continuing our legacy of compassion and commitment to refugees.”