Two and a half years ago, Linda DeBoer was busy finishing off another school year as a Christian school secretary in Georgetown, Ont., and planning a trip to Ireland.
When she received an email from her cousin in the Netherlands about helping sponsor an Eritrean refugee to Canada, she read it quickly, thought it sounded like a lot of work, and didn’t give it much more thought.
But after her school year had ended, her cousin emailed again. DeBoer re-read the request: her cousins’ four sons had been backpacking in Israel where they met an Eritrean man who had been living there for 10 years on a temporary visa, revocable at any time. The young men were moved by this man’s plight and wondered if Canada—and Linda DeBoer in particular—might be willing to help. They had heard that Canada allows for private sponsorship of refugees in addition to those already resettled by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Was she willing? DeBoer wasn’t sure, but her youngest son said, “How can you say no to this? Is this not what the church is all about—helping those in need?” So Linda forwarded the email to her pastor at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Tom VanMilligen, and her good friend, Rebecca Walker, who DeBoer knew “had something to do with refugees in her work at World Renew.”
Rebecca is, in fact, the coordinator of World Renew’s Refugee Program. And Linda’s cousin’s sons were right: Canada does allow for private citizens to sponsor refugees. World Renew, as an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder with IRCC, has sponsored—in partnership with churches and their members—over 7500 refugees to Canada over the past 40 years. And DeBoer was right when she said, upon learning this, “God had a plan in place.”
So at her first council meeting as a newly elected deacon, she did not sit quietly. Although she claims not to be “well-spoken,” DeBoer stood up and delivered a proposal “with lots of reasons” that the church sponsor a refugee. And they said yes.
When DeBoer learned that the refugee’s brother—also living in Israel on a temporary visa—was put in a detention center, she went back to council, this time with her son, who asked them to consider sponsoring two men. They said yes again.
Now DeBoer and her sponsorship team faced a big challenge. Sponsors are responsible for providing financial support for a refugee’s first year in Canada. Her team would need to provide help ranging from housing for the first year to finding medical care and language classes, to assistance in obtaining employment and getting a driver’s license. DeBoer admitted, “I fretted over the money,” but kept reminding herself that “God has a plan in place. I just had to trust him.”
And he did, of course. The principal of her school invited her to share her plan with the staff and soon the grade 5 and 6 students were interviewing her team: How could they help? What about a talent show? Team member (and grandmother to class member Ethan) Janie Visser recalled wondering if “these ‘big dreamers’ could successfully plan this event,” but delightedly reports that “God took these big plans and the talent show was a huge success!” The class raised over $10,000 in one night.
This August, DeBoer and Georgetown CRC’s refugee sponsorship team welcomed their first refugee at Toronto Pearson Airport. Sporting Canadian colors and waving Canadian flags, they were joined by school families holding high a student-designed banner: Welcome to Canada! As Kidane, the Eritrean backpacker from Israel, walked through Customs, tears flowed and hugs were shared.
In addition to financial and practical support, Linda DeBoer and the Georgetown community will offer Kidane friendship, a faith community, and possibly the chance to reunite with family: Kidane’s brother now has an immigration interview and his wife and two sons, previously unable to leave Eritrea, have found their way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
This will all mean more investment of time and money and emotion on the part of Linda DeBoer and the Georgetown team. But they’re not alone. Georgetown CRC, Halton Hills Christian School community, and World Renew are invested, too. “Rebecca and her colleagues have been a great help to us every step of the way,” said DeBoer. “Always willing to answer our many questions and very supportive.”
And DeBoer and her team testify to receiving a lot in return. “The whole experience has opened my eyes,” said team member Irene Westerveld, “to the plight of so many refugees in the world. We can so easily live in our insulated bubbles and ignore the needy around us. We were amazed at how God answered our prayers.”
Janie Visser celebrated the common cause she’s found with her grandson Ethan: “We now have a ‘refugee connection.’ I get to pray with him and have discussions about how we can change someone’s life.”
To learn more about refugee sponsorship in Canada, please visit worldrenew.ca/refugee-sponsorship.