Area church hopes to sponsor refugee family

The Mount Forest and Woodland United Churches are gathering their resources in order to sponsor a refugee family.

Spearheaded by a refugee committee called United for Refugees and Rev. Sheryl Spencer, the churches are hoping to make a difference in the growing worldwide problem of displaced people.

Elsie Gibson, one of the church’s members who initiated United for Refugees, said she feels obligated to help.

“For me it’s more that I’m my brother’s keeper and I’ve been taught that all my life,” she said.

Elsie along with Janice Benson, another member of the church, were both wondering what they could do about the refugee problem in February.  

“I think quite coincidentally, three of us spoke to the minister in the same week,” said Elsie.

Benson added, “We all sort of got this idea at the same time, ‘What about these refugees?’ It started to be on the News and we just felt maybe there was something our church community could do.”

Elsie and her husband Rea Gibson were part of a church in Guelph that helped bring over a refugee family in the 1980s.

“We have wonderful, wonderful memories of having done it in our church in Guelph… It’s just the most wonderful experience that stays with you forever when you realize that these people could have had their lives finished and they came here and had very successful lives,” said Elsie.

While they started the process back in February, the process is slow going.

The members are using the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, where refugees are referred to Canadian visa offices abroad directly by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The committee has to first prove to United Church of Canada, a sponsorship agreement holder with the Canadian government, that they have the financial means to support a refugee or a family. The committee estimates it needs to provide $30,000 for a family for a full year.

Then the United Church of Canada will work with the government and find a list of families for the committee to chose from, explained Benson.

“We’d like to have a family instead of a single person because there isn’t a huge immigrant population in the Mount Forest area so it’s better to have a family rather than be all by yourself,” she said.

Through the BVOR program, the government will provide up to six months of income support, while private sponsors such as United for Refugees will provide another six months of financial support.

“At this point it is only commitments; we’ve got people that have said, ‘This is my commitment and I’m prepared to give this much money,’ so I think we’re at about $8,000,” said Elsie.

“We don’t have to have this money up front. We just have to show that we can give them their living expenses and pay their rent and buy their groceries and whatever they need month to month.”

The momentum in the congregation has been growing stronger, the group says, and they have been putting feelers out to the community to help in the sponsorship.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation, it seems, because you have to be able to prove that you have the means to support a family for a year in order to start the official process but it’s probably easier to raise that money once you can actually say, ‘This is the family that we’re hoping to sponsor,’” said Spencer.

She also explained that bringing in a family is a big deal for this community, and some concerns have been raised.

“There have been concerns about can we do this … ‘can one congregation come up with the equivalent of $30,000? Is this the right time, is this where we should be putting our outreach resources, what about the local community?’ They’re all good questions and so we have to navigate this process through our own community as well,” said Spencer.

“This is a small town and this is a very big commitment. You’re bringing a family and that’s real people so we can’t do this lightly.”

Elsie, Rea and Benson, they say they have to do something to help.  

“One of our main points of our United Church creed is ‘reach out’ and it’s a social justice,” said Rea.

Added Benson, “I think our church motto is ‘reaching up to God, reaching out to people’ so we do have a lot to share here … We’re very privileged here and we just have a lot to share.”

While Syria has brought the issue of refugees to the forefront, that was not what sparked this group to sponsor a refugee family, but it is a big motivator now.

“You feel sort of helpless watching what’s … on the News every day. It’s bad, it’s horrible to think about,” said Benson.

“What if that were me,? What if that was my family that didn’t have a home or place to live or a county, if I was stateless living in a train station somewhere trying to get to some county that was a little friendlier?

“It’s very, very scary.”

According to UNHCR, there were 14.9 million refugees at the end of 2014, up by 2.7 million from the previous year. Canada brought in 23,286 refugees in 2014, according to Statistics Canada.

Benson is hoping the churches will be ready in a few months time, acknowledging that winter is coming, so they are aiming for spring.

But there is a lot to do before then.

United for Refugees is holding its first fundraiser on Oct. 18 at 2:30pm – a benefit concert featuring the Belmore Community Choir, the Mount Forest Harmonaires and the Mount Forest United Church Choir.

The concert will be held at the Mount Forest United Church. Tickets will be available at the door for $20 for adults and $10 for children 16 and under.

Elsie said she feels obligated to help and she can do her part, no matter how small.

“We just feel it’s a commitment we can’t not make,” said Elsie.