Ready to welcome refugees
As of Nov. 24, the Government of Canada was processing 4,511 applications for privately sponsored Syrian refugees (not including Quebec, which has its own procedure). The map shows communities where private sponsors have submitted an application. (image from cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome)
Vancouver’s Jewish community is mobilizing to welcome refugees from Syria. The federal government has announced that 25,000 Syrian refugees will come to Canada before the end of February. While most of those will be government-sponsored, groups of Canadians, including many in the Jewish community, are leaping at the opportunity to be a part of the resettlement project.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Anglican church to streamline the process. The federal government has a number of sponsorship agreement holders, which are established, experienced groups that are engaged in aiding refugees on an ongoing basis. To expedite the process, the Jewish community is primarily working through the partnership with the Anglican Church of Canada so that synagogues and other Jewish groups that may want to sponsor can do so efficiently.
“The Anglican diocese, rather than setting up a separate relationship with each of the synagogues, proposed that there be one memorandum of understanding with the Jewish community,” said Shelley Rivkin, Federation’s vice-president for planning, allocations and community affairs. “We will be the holder of the memorandum of understanding so the synagogues will raise the funds and issue a tax receipt. The funds will then come to us and be in a restricted account and, as those funds are distributed, they will go directly through us so that the diocese is not having to deal with multiple parties.”
Or Shalom Synagogue has already raised two-thirds of the funds necessary to sponsor three families. Natalie Grunberg, a member of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugees Initiative, said they are expecting their sponsored refugees as early as January. The group has launched a series of events, including a concert of Syrian music, to raise awareness and money for the project. The federal government estimates the cost of sponsoring a refugee family for a year to be about $30,000, but Vancouverites involved in the process are working on an assumption of about $40,000, based on housing costs here.
Or Shalom is working through existing partnerships they have built over the years. Rather than going through the Anglican church, they are working with the United Church of Canada. Grunberg acknowledged that some in the Jewish community have differences with the United Church’s stand toward Israel, but the priority was to expedite the refugee sponsorship process and they believed working through existing relationships would be most effective.
Grunberg is noticeably proud of her congregation’s efforts so far.
“We’re a very small synagogue and we’re sponsoring three families,” she said.
Through existing relationships with the Syrian community here, Or Shalom will focus their sponsorship efforts on reunifying families that already have some members in Metro Vancouver and also on members of the LGBT community.
Temple Sholom is also rallying for refugees. Almost immediately after announcing the idea during the High Holidays, the synagogue raised enough money to sponsor one family.
“We’ve now decided to sponsor a second family,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
He acknowledges that there have been some anxieties among his congregation about bringing Syrian refugees here.
“I met with every person that voiced that concern to me,” he said. “I met with them personally. We talked about it. We talked about the people that we are bringing in – they were concerned about terrorists coming across – we talked about the difference between private sponsorship, as we are doing, and what we’ve been seeing in Europe with refugees flooding across borders … that we were sponsoring families with young children, that our sponsorships were family reunification, so they would have real roots here in B.C., particularly in Vancouver. We acknowledge the fears but at the same time we also recognize that this is a crisis and that the Jewish tradition teaches us quite clearly to love the stranger. Israel is doing things for refugees on the Syrian border right now with their hospitals and we had to do our part.”
Moskovitz cites Torah as the basis for his enthusiasm.
“Thirty-six times in the Torah, in the Bible, it says to love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land,” he said. “The Jews were once refugees ourselves and this goes all the way back to the land of Egypt and the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh, where we were running for our lives; in that case from the famine, according to the biblical story, and the Egyptian people welcomed the Jewish people, welcomed us in and gave us food and shelter and we lived there for 435 years, according to the Bible. From that and so many other times in the Bible, the most often-repeated commandment in all of Jewish tradition is to love the stranger, to love the immigrant; love the stranger, because that was you once.”
More modern Jewish history is also a factor, he added.
“We are largely still here even though throughout our history people have tried to destroy us because at critical times in our history some people took us in,” said Moskovitz. “We like to think we did it all by ourselves and there is no doubt that there is a tremendous resiliency of the Jewish people but, at the same time, we have been the beneficiary of others sheltering us at times of mortal danger.”
Congregation Beth Israel has created a task force to look into possibly sponsoring a Kurdish Syrian refugee family. Executive director Shannon Etkin said the group will analyze the resources available within the congregation community to provide for a family beyond the minimum requirements set out by the federal government.
Other synagogues, organizations and individuals who may not have the resources to directly sponsor a refugee or family are being encouraged to support on-the-ground efforts by the Joint Distribution Committee, which is aiding refugees in Turkey and Hungary. This support is being organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“They’re doing a lot of direct aid for women and children and also doing some work with frontline responders,” Rivkin said.