Erin refugee group seeks community support to resettle Syrian family members

ERIN – For refugees chosen to come to Canada, it’s like winning the lottery, say Erin Refugee Action (ERA) group members.

The local group has sponsored five families since 2016, and is now campaigning to raise enough funds to reunite its second sponsored family, the Hizans, with their extended family, including Souzan’s brother, sister-in-law, two young nieces and her mother.

Originally from Syria, Souzan and Mohammad Hizan arrived in Canada in 2019 with their two teenage children, Asmaa and Aref.

“The push is the conflict in the Middle East right now; they’re in Lebanon, in Beirut,” said Susann Palmiere, who helps the newcomers navigate the health care system.

“It’s everything … it’s health care, it’s stability, it’s jobs, it’s seeing their kids be raised safely,” said Deney Delfosse, who largely helps with fundraising and employment.

The group of five is already registered as refugees with Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and if the ERA meets its ultimate $50,000 fundraising goal, the family could arrive here sometime in 2026.

But as Delfosse told the Advertiser, the local group – and the family in Lebanon – face many hurdles to reach that point.

The ERA was started in 2016 after Erin resident Barbara Harrison felt the town could do something to make a difference in the lives of Syrian refugees.

“There was the common idea that it’s not going to work,” she said, but the group focused beyond challenges with housing and transportation.

“People really stepped up and they wanted to be part of something bigger,” Harrison said.

“It’s very empowering to see that we can do it, and that we’ve done it several times, and that the families are doing so well in Canada.”

According to official numbers, the Canadian government resettled 44,620 Syrians here between 2015 and 2016. The feds, through an Immigration Levels Plan, have also established a target of resettling 221,615 refugees in Canada between now and 2026.

Despite record-breaking immigration levels in Canada since 2021, refugees account for a relatively small portion of the official numbers, with yearly government targets averaging 70,958 between 2022 and 2026.

Harrison has since stepped down to focus on her dog rescue, Paws Across the Water, but says the organization she helped start has been left in the hands of four passionate women.

In addition to Delfosse and Palmiere, are Cathy Hansen, who helps with taxes and budgeting, and Bertha Lopez, who helps with homemaking and household goods – both are the group’s only original members.

“I’ll never forget their help,” said Safi Rahin.

Originally from Afghanistan, Rahin was resettled in Canada by the women in 2020.

His brother-in-law and family were also resettled in Canada thanks to the group.

As one of the minority Muslim groups in Afghanistan at the time, Rahin grew exhausted of sectarian conflicts and instability.

“Here is way different,” he said from Guelph, where he lives with his wife, three young children, and in-laws.

The biggest challenges facing the young family are the high cost of living and unaffordable rent, he said.

“It might be hard here, but that guy [has] gone through hell and back,” Delfosse said of Rahin.

Within the first year of sponsorship, the ERA helps with housing, English, medical care, opening a bank account, household supplies, schooling, and transportation.

“We see it through until they get their first job; we’re tenacious about that,” Delfosse said. But the women say they often provide help and community extending years past their obligations.

Once the initial euphoria of arriving fades “there is this letdown,” Delfosse admitted.

Newcomers become “overwhelmed by all of the things they have to do,” Palmiere added.

“They really do come thinking it’s the promised land … but then they get here,” Delfosse continued, noting reams of paperwork, schooling, new cultural norms, a foreign language, insufficient wages, and the high cost of living.

The women all agreed housing has become the single biggest struggle with which to contend.

Between a lack of places to live and the necessity for a vehicle, resettlement in Erin and the county doesn’t always work for newcomers, so they often relocate to urban centres such as Guelph and Kitchener.

Despite the challenges, Delfosse said the families “become independent very quickly.”

“They won the lottery by getting over here, and then it’s what you make of it, and we’ve certainly seen that they try so hard,” Palmiere added.

The women credit a focus on reuniting families with positive outcomes and long-term success, and said families are “begging us” to bring their family members to Canada.

“There’s a lot of guilt they deal with,” Delfosse explained.

Without the efforts of the ERA, the Anglican Diocese they have partnered with, and the community, the lives of 14 people would be very different.

“I think what we do makes a difference in the world,” Delfosse said.

Eight of the 14 refugees have since become Canadian citizens.

“I have had somebody say to me: ‘Why are you helping them and not somebody local?’ But my response is, I am helping people locally, but all of the work is important … I think the world needs to see that we help each other,” Delfosse added.

For the ERA to have a chance at bringing over the Hizans, the group first needs to raise $20,000 by a September deadline to prove the group can financially support the family.

With $14,000 collected from local service clubs, businesses, foundations, churches and individual donations, the women are confident about meeting the government deadline.

But that’s only part of the financial hurdle they face.

Following the ERA’s application to sponsor the family’s resettlement in Canada, it takes months to process the application, and up to two years before the family could arrive.

In the 18 to 24 months following the application, the ERA will need to raise another $30,000 to have enough to support the family for a year after they arrive.

Future fundraising events are likely to involve Epicure parties, a dinner made by the Hizans, and more formal fundraising events to be revealed later.

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