Local organizations mobilize for refugee crisis

MCC in the midst of largest operation ever; ACS building capacity

An extended family of Afghan asylum-seekers

An extended family of Afghan asylum-seekers

As refugees continue to flee their homelands in numbers not seen since the Second World War, Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) are gearing up to provide whatever help is needed to settle those who may come to Canada in the coming months.

The global refugee crisis – in which millions of people displaced by fighting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere – has made headlines in recent weeks. Spurred in large part by a horrifying photo showing a toddler who died during an attempted sea crossing, federal political parties have indicated a desire to expedite the arrival of refugees in Canada.

On Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark announced the province would provide $1 million to help settle refugees in B.C.. That money would be distributed to local organizations like ACS, which already provides services and assistance to around 50 refugees in the city.

ACS community connections co-ordinator Andrea Dykshoorn said staff members have already fielded inquiries by locals inquiring about sponsoring or helping refugees who might be coming to Abbotsford.

Manpreet Grewal, ACS’s director of multicultural and immigrant integration services, said the organization is already planning for language services that would be needed by newly arriving refugees.

“We will build our capacity,” she said. “Once we have the idea of the number of people that we’re going to receive, then it will be more formalized.”


All photos courtesy UNHCR

The organization will draw on experience learned from helping dozens of Kosovar refugees settle in the area in the late 1990s. A total of 71 people came to Abbotsford at that time, with most remaining in the area afterwards, and others following them in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, the Mennonite Central Committee is in the midst of its largest response in its history, and has spent $31 million in the last year and a half to help refugees around the globe.

And as that work continues in those areas of the world where people are fleeing to and from, the organization is also asking its members to open both their wallets and their doors.

“Assisting refugees either here in Canada, settling them, or assisting them in place is core to what MCC does,” said Ron Ratzlaff, the organization’s interim communications director.

The organization focuses its efforts in areas around the world where it has a long-established presence on the ground. Here in Abbotsford, where it has its B.C. headquarters, staff work to provide support and find sponsors for those refugees on approved lists to move to Canada.

Last week, the organization sent out an urgent appeal to member churches asking members to pray and consider donating or sponsoring refugees.

Jennifer Mpungu, MCC’s refugee assistance program co-ordinator, said she has already had numerous inquiries from locals hoping to help.

“We have had extraordinary support from people calling me, writing emails,” she said.

She noted that the need to help refugees around the world is nothing new, despite the recent increase in media attention. The current crisis has been building for years, and Mpungu and Ratzlaff hope the issue remains at the fore of people’s minds, even if media coverage subsides.

“My hope is that now there has been all this support … that people realize that it is not only Syria,” she said, noting there are already refugees in need of sponsors from several other countries. “This tragedy should not be in vain.”

ACS and MCC will be working together, and with other local organizations, to line up sponsors. Churches have already shown an interest, but the issue cuts across faith and cultural lines.

“This is not limited to our traditional contituency,” Ratzlaff said.

“This crosses belief or faith lines. You’ve got various kinds of interfaith groups looking to assist and we’re more than happy to work with them.”

Refugees overseas can be sponsored in Canada either by the federal government or, as has been the trend in recent years, by private organizations and groups. While those can be religious or community organizations like MCC or ACS, individuals can form their own groups of as few as five people. Sponsors are asked to support refugees, financially and otherwise, for their first year in Canada.

Those looking to help, can donate money to MCC’s efforts at MCCCanada.ca. For information about sponsoring or providing other assistance to refugees, contact Mpungu at 604-850-6639 or jennifermpungu@mccbc.ca. S

Staff at ACS can also answer questions about assistance; contact Andrea Dykshoorn, at 604-217-3055, or Dardane Shushka, at 604-859-7681, extension 237.