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40 Years of Welcome: Canadian Churches Extend a Hand to Refugees

: (L to r): Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship with CRC representatives Kathryn Ali and Rebecca Walker, World Renew's Refugee Program, and Arie Van Eek, former executive secretary of the then Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada,1978-1999.
: (L to r): Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship with CRC representatives Kathryn Ali and Rebecca Walker, World Renew's Refugee Program, and Arie Van Eek, former executive secretary of the then Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada,1978-1999.

At a gathering in Ottawa on February 28, representatives from World Renew, the international development, disaster response, and peace-building agency of the Christian Reformed Church, celebrated the 40th anniversary of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program with government officials and others. The program began in the late 1970s when Canadian Mennonites, concerned for displaced people fleeing Vietnam, first negotiated with the government for the right to sponsor these refugees. Others followed. The CRC in Canada was the third church group to sign the agreement. Partnering with congregations from coast to coast, World Renew estimates that it has welcomed and resettled 7,500 refugees since 1979. The recent Syrian refugee crisis prompted an increase of 26 Christian Reformed churches participating in refugee sponsorship for the first time.

The Canadian government determines if applicants are eligible and creates a list for sponsorship agreement holders, of which World Renew is one. The agreement holder helps to match a sponsorship group, often a congregation, with an individual or family to sponsor. The congregation commits support for one year, including accommodation, furniture, food, clothing, enrolment in English lessons, and finding employment. The government provides six months of living expenses; the church covers the other six months. Relationships that develop between sponsoring churches and refugees are often deep and enduring. Iron Springs (Alta.) CRC sponsored Tho Nguyen and her four children as refugees from Vietnam 36 years ago. Adri van den Dool and Nguyen called each other “sister.” She and her husband attended all the graduations and weddings of Nguyen’s children. The families shared meals and went hiking together. “Although Tho passed away on October 2, 2018, we are still friends with the family,” said van den Dool.

The stories of lives changed are so powerful and plentiful that Ken Vanderploeg, pastor of First CRC in Taber, Alta., suggested, “You’ll need the entire magazine [The Banner] or an article each month.” He told of Zacharias, one of the “lost boys of Sudan” who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War and eventually made their way to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Zacharias lived in a camp for 19 years before he was sponsored in 2016 by Taber CRC. “His story will fill a book,” said Vanderploeg.

Martha, a single mother with five children, lived in the same camp as Zacharias and was sponsored by Taber CRC the same year. As a woman without a husband, she was not only vulnerable herself, but her daughters were at an age when they could be "taken" as a wife, possibly by force. As a Christian in a camp where Christians were persecuted, she faced additional fear and insecurity. So she dressed as a Muslim woman. “Without knowing it,” said Vanderploeg, “we had ‘rescued’ Christians from the refugee camp, which is what we had prayed for, knowing that Christians were especially vulnerable.” Martha soon discovered she had relatives in Lethbridge and went to live in the same apartment complex, a few blocks from Immanuel Elementary Christian School where her younger children attend. She also found work at a meat packing plant.

Ghirmai Emun Ghebremariam and his family from Sudan were sponsored by Bethel CRC in London, Ont., in December 2006. He described being separated from his wife and children before resettlement in Canada, adding, “It was an emotional moment to see them after six years. Coming to new country to start everything from the start was hard. . . . I would like to thank the deacons of Bethel church. After one year we were blessed with one addition child named Senai. The life became much easier working different odd jobs until [I became] self-employed. Now I and my wife, we have been self-employed for 11 years. My daughter graduated from university, and Abel is still in third year college, and Senai is in grade 6 this year. I would like to thank the government of Canada and the people of Canada for facilitating the process of immigration.”

The Kahya family, sponsored by Wallaceburg (Ont.) CRC, arrived in Canada July 2016. “They are Syrians who lived in Libya and Turkey before coming to settle in Canada,” explained Dick and Carolyn Bulsink. “They are a Muslim family and have taught us about their faith, and we pray that they have learned about our faith. They are industrious, loving people. The Kahyas were a wonderful opportunity to show God’s love to someone in need. We fell in love with them right away, and as a committee, we enjoyed getting to know them and working with them.” The Bulsinks said this is why they feel sponsorship is important, not only for the new arrivals, but also for those receiving them.

First CRC in Sarnia, Ont. participates in sponsorship with three other local churches. From 1996-2016 they sponsored six families. “All in all, I feel our churches have been blessed through this ministry,” said Henny Drope, a member who first served on the church’s refugee committee when she became a deacon in 1994. “We have learned about struggles the families have gone through. We have learned to respect different cultures and religions.”

“Our Muslim family has been very open with us. They’ve attended several worship services in our churches. They recently cooked a dinner for around 50 people to thank those who have been closely involved in their settlement here. I believe our lives have been enriched through this,” Drope said.

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