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Churches asked to help resettle refugees from Syria and Iraq

(Staff)   CANADA plans to welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State’s reign of terror, but the federal government hopes private organizations, such as church groups, will shoulder 60 per cent of the work and costs. It will pick up the remaining 40 per cent.

On Jan. 7th Ottawa announced it will accept another 10,000 Syrians over three years and 3,000 more Iraqis in 2015.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the measure is about “doing the right thing” for “Syrians and Iraqis who face the worst forms of violence in the world today.”

The Canadian initiative is in direct response to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s global appeal to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees worldwide. The UN agency praised Canada's “generous commitment” saying, “this substantial pledge is in keeping with Canada’s strong humanitarian tradition.”

The Harper government says the priority for refugees will be persecuted groups, specifically religious minorities (which would include Christians), sexual minorities and victims of rape. This has prompted concern among some refugee advocates that Muslims, a majority in the region, would be ignored.

Refugee sponsor groups said it will be a huge task to help 6,000 Syrian refugees settle in Canada over 36 months. This is on top of the 3,000 additional Iraqi refugees Canada is now accepting.

“Over three years, it will be probably on the edge of possible,” said Alexandra Kotyk, the sponsorship director at the church-based Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), a charity representing the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada.

Martin Mark, the refugee sponsorship co-ordinator for the Catholic archdiocese in Toronto, said he believes Canadian private sponsors can absorb 6,000 Syrians over three years if they sit down and carefully plan among themselves.

Private sponsors are expected to provide “financial and emotional support” for at least one year, and possibly up to three, including help with housing, clothing and food.

Liberal immigration critic John McCallum said he’s concerned the Harper government is relying too heavily on private sponsors to support the bulk of Syrian refugees. He urged Ottawa to take a larger share of the burden, by sponsoring 80 per cent.

Mr. Alexander acknowledged private refugee sponsors have their hands full. He said such sponsors today are dealing with an international refugee crisis that “goes beyond anything we’ve seen since the Second World War.”

Some advocates have raised concerns that Canada will give preference to Syrian Christians at the expense of Muslims. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said he still wants confirmation that Ottawa will pick refugees based on need rather than religious affiliation.

Kevin Menard, spokesman for Mr. Alexander, said: “We make no apologies for putting the focus on people in need, some of whom are being persecuted based on their religious beliefs. Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape.”

Canada has already resettled 20,000 Iraqis and since mid-2013 has brought 1,060 Syrian refugees to Canada.

Eiad Herera, a 31-year-old Christian from Damascus, arrived in Montreal with his wife and family last June through private church sponsorship. The church helped his family find an apartment, enroll in classes, and supports them financially. “The church has done more than its humanitarian duty,” Herera told the CBC. “It’s helped us in every way possible. Canada is not like our countries. The country here helps everyone – immigrants, refugees and citizens alike.”

Humanitarian aid

The government also announced another $90-million in humanitarian aid for people affected by the intensifying violence in both Iraq and Syria. Of that, $50 million will help people displaced inside Syria and in neighbouring countries where refugees have fled,  which includes Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The other $40 million will assist those affected by the ongoing crisis in Iraq. The assistance will be distributed via UN agencies, the Red Cross and various aid groups.

World Vision Canada received $2.3 million for its humanitarian work in northern Iraq. Dave Toycen, its president, said: “World Vision is grateful for the support announced by the Government of Canada for our work with displaced Iraqis who have fled conflict within their own borders. With winter storms battering the Middle East ... World Vision will use these funds to provide warm clothing, money and other supplies to children and families in need.”  -- Sources: The Globe and Mail, CBC

See also Refugee Math p. 2.

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