Brian Dyck is the migration and resettlement program co-ordinator with the Mennonite Central Committee Canada. He helps churches in the ministry of refugee sponsorship. He spoke to Karen Stiller of Faith Today about sponsoring refugees, and what it feels like when it goes right.
Photographed for Faith Today by Blair Gable
Faith Today: Can you speak to us about the Christian imperative to work with refugees?
Brian Dyck: Well, a passage that we have turned to a lot, and that a lot of people who are involved in refugee resettlement use, is Matthew 25 where Jesus says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." When we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Christ. So that is one place a lot of people turn to when they’re thinking about why they’re involved in this.
But it goes [further] back to Leviticus 19, and how we really need to remember our own past, and about treating a sojourner in the land with respect as part of the community.
People [also] talk about the experience reaching out to a newcomer as [helping them] understand God in a new way. You see that in many places in the Bible. You see that God is encountered when somebody meets a stranger. The story of the road to Emmaus, for example – disciples are walking along the road with a stranger who is talking to them. It’s only at the end when they break bread they realize they were actually speaking with Jesus.
Hebrews talks about those who entertain strangers might be entertaining angels unaware. There are many places where we encounter the divine when we encounter the stranger. It is a beautiful work.
FT: When our church was involved in sponsoring refugees for the first time, we were really learning on the go. We didn’t know what to expect. Could you speak to expectations and how to handle them? And then the reality of the hard work of raising the money and then helping the refugees settle, which I think is when the real work actually begins.
BD: Oh, absolutely. It’s not always easy. One of the things I tell groups often is to make sure you manage your expectations.
But also you’ll need to make sure the people who are coming, the newcomers, are managing their expectations. A lot of times people come here with a certain sense of what it means to be in Canada. It’s skewed by the media, and by films and TV that portray the U.S. and Canada, and that’s what they think life is like. And of course, we all know life isn’t like it is portrayed in movies and TV. So making sure they understand this is what it’s going to be, it’s going to be difficult, but that you are going to be there with them.
And having an understanding that these people have come from a very difficult situation. Often they have seen terrible things and experienced terrible things. They’ve had health problems because of lack of resources. And so it’s going to be a lot of work to make sure they get the support they need, the medical support they need, the support to learn the language, English or French, and the support to find schooling. It’s going to be a lot of work, but hopefully over the period of a year people become more independent and able to take control of their lives. And that’s really what this is all about.
FT: Brian, can you walk us through the timeline and the process so people who haven’t been involved in this work understand exactly what it means? If a group approaches you as a sponsorship agreement holder, what happens then?
BD: If a group comes to us and says, "We don’t know any refugees. Help us get involved in this," we go to a list the Government of Canada has on a website, a list of people who have already been approved by the Canadian government to resettle in Canada, but might need some extra help.
We go to that list and see if we can match them with a family or a person that’s about the size they think that they can manage. We tell them what we know. But we generally don’t know much beyond the ages of the children. We might know a little bit about their vocation. We will know certainly where they come from.
Once the group says, "Yes, this is a family or an individual we think we can handle," then we’ll talk to them about how much money they need to raise. Generally, in those particular cases, the government will provide six months of financial support. We are expected to provide the other six months of financial support in the first year.
After the first year, if they still need support, they are able to go on the provincial social assistance program. So matching them is the first step, and then talking to them about how much money they’ll need to raise or put into this to make sure that the person is going to be taken care of in the first 12 months in Canada.
After that we talk to them about what’s needed. What are the responsibilities? They’ll need to find a doctor and a dentist. Often people who have been refugees have a lot of dental problems. And so making sure they can find access to medical support. Helping them line up with language classes and helping the children enroll in school is part of it.
Those are the sort of things that we talk to them about. And we’ve worked with groups on creating what is called a Settlement Plan. That is the plan of how you’re going to work with these newcomers to integrate them into your community.
FT: And when the refugee family arrives in the Canadian community, the group is basically walking with them for 12 months.
BD: Our legal commitment is for the first 12 months they’re in Canada. But often the relationship can go on for years and even decades. I know people who were resettling refugees in the early 1980s who still connect with the people they’ve sponsored.
FT: Can you tell us about some typical things that can go wrong? Maybe common mistakes we can warn people about?
BD: Sure. Well, I talked already about managing expectations. That’s the first thing. And the way you manage expectations is at the very beginning. Talk about what this relationship is, and what you are going to be providing and what you expect from the newcomers.
Make sure you have communication right at the beginning. Maybe write up something, and have it translated and say, "This is how our relationship will go for the next 12 months." Often disagreements will come up around finances. There may be other aspects to it, but making sure you understand what you are going to be providing, and making sure that’s all clear.
And at the same time saying, "We’re going to be here for you for whatever you need. We are going to provide for you."
Another thing is family dynamics. When you come to a new place, the ways people understand family can be very different. The dynamics between parents and children can often be challenging. The children will pick up the culture and the language much faster. And in some ways can be in a position of control, and so you can have a parent/child disagreement going on.
You can also have challenges between husbands and wives because they had a certain way of functioning in a place where they came from, and the culture and the way things are happening in Canada may be different.
Family challenges can also be extended to the extended family. Sometimes newcomers will have family members who are already here in Canada, and they have a certain expectation and understanding of what the newcomers will be doing, and the newcomers may not always agree. Having family discussions about what will be happening and keeping an eye on that sort of thing is another important thing to think about.
FT: Every experience is probably a mix of things that go well and things that maybe don’t go well. And we’re all learning. But when it unfolds beautifully, Brian, what does it look like?
BD: It can feel very much like an awkward situation. "What will they think about our food? What will they think about the way we live?" You can be afraid to do anything.
But sometimes it just feels like you’re sitting down together and talking like old friends. And it feels like a window is open and like a piece of heaven is all of a sudden there. And it’s the way we’ve been meant to be, to meet with people across cultures and get to know each other in that way.