Doors Open for Refugee Family

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Meagan May, Erica Kehler, Gord May, Sabrina Falk, Matt Falk, Larissa Sandulak, Gerald Loeppky, Alia Kehler, Elaine Kehler, Daryl Kehler, Emily Rempel, and Murray Rempel of the Open Doors Niverville committee Brenda Sawatzky

A group of compassionate Niverville residents has been working diligently over the past few months to extend a hand of friendship, financial aid, and transportation for a young Pakistani family currently seeking asylum in Thailand. Together with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the group is hopeful that the bureaucratic process will move swiftly and without impediment before it’s too late.

“We applied to sponsor seven refugees,” says Elaine Kehler, coordinator and spokesperson for Open Doors Niverville (ODN). “But in an effort to catch up to the backlog of sponsorships, [the Canadian government] cut back on allotments and we received only three spots. Through our connections with City Church [in Winnipeg], we received a folder of families desperately waiting for sponsorship. Since we could only sponsor three individuals, it really narrowed down our choices. After reading their stories and making some personal contact, we chose our family.”

ODN first organized in 2015 in response to the escalating Syrian refugee crisis. The group gathered in church board rooms and homes, collaborating on the best means to initiate such a process. As the meetings progressed, they quickly established their goals: to provide sponsorship to any refugee in need, as there was a registered list of families and individuals who had been awaiting sponsorship since long before the Syrian crisis began. It was also deemed important to be completely respectful of any sponsored family’s right to continue worship according to their own faith, and to relocate, if they wished, after the initial year of sponsorship had been carried out.

After hearing from other refugee sponsorship groups, the evidence was in: this would be a long and tedious process, requiring serious commitment from numerous individuals, both before and after the family’s arrival. As is often the case, interest waned after months of discussion and the group eventually disbanded.

In the spring of 2017, Kehler says she and her daughter were moved to action once again when a member of City Church spoke at her church. The representative presented a desperate situation for displaced Pakistani refugees who’d sought asylum in a country unwilling to extend mercy—Thailand. 

According to a BBC article from February 2016, there are an estimated 11,500 Pakistani asylum seekers in Thailand. The majority of these have left their home country not due to political unrest but rather the Islamic extremists’ forceful response to their Christian faith. In Pakistan, Christians are required to convert back to Islam or risk torture and sometimes death, women and children not excluded.

According to the article, “The Pakistani Christians head to Thailand because it’s easy to enter the country on a short-term tourist visa, and in Pakistan’s hostile neighbourhood there are few safe options closer to hand.” 

But Thailand has been anything but welcoming. They aren’t interested in asylum seekers and have stepped up strategies to control the masses by sending out immigration police, forcing them from their hovels and charging them with illegal immigration—or worse, terrorism.

Men, women, and children languor in jail cells in inhumane conditions, awaiting someone to post their bail. While many of them are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency, backlogs create indefinite wait times while people sit in desperate fear, unable to work, feed their families, or see their imprisoned loved ones.

“We began this process in February, just two weeks before the applications had to be submitted for 2017,” says Kehler. She invited previous members of ODN, as well as new ones, to reconvene.

The response was good and a committee of 15 people was immediately established. They met with representatives from City Church and MCC to get the ball rolling.
 
“Once our family was determined, we began about six weeks of intensive paperwork,” Kehler says. “Our refugee family received their file number in July and now we wait. They need to have an interview as well as medical checks. This could take months, or maybe even years as there are thousands of refugees waiting for sponsorship.”

Arisnel Mesidor, MCC Manitoba’s Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator, says that without MCC’s aid, this sponsorship wouldn’t have been possible since the refugees in question don’t have official refugee status. To date, MCC has professionally processed the application at no cost to ODN, provided free training and awareness to the group, and they will continue to provide support throughout the process. Because of MCC’s involvement, it is expected that the entire process will be expedited by about six months. 

“Later, after the family has arrived, if anything that was unforeseen and unplanned happens and [ODR], as a result, ends up having difficulties helping the newcomer family, they can always reach out to MCC for guidance and potential assistance,” says Mesidor.

In the past two and a half years, MCC Manitoba has helped 427 displaced persons find a sponsorship group and home in Manitoba. Mesidor states that the Canadian government is considered the official sponsor of refugees. All parameters, such as numbers, countries of focus, and timing, are set by the government. 

“Because the government wants to control the number of private sponsorship applications submitted in a given year, every February [organizations] like MCC receive from the government what we call ‘allocations,’” Mesidor says. He describes allocations as the number of people who can be sponsored. “In turn, we have to manage the numbers given to us when working with groups or churches that want to sponsor refugees through us.”

Tim Nielsen is the pastor of City Church, located at 484 Maryland Street in Winnipeg. He says that their church has many years of sponsorship experience and is excited to offer assistance to Open Doors.

“We are an inner city, evangelical, intercultural church that has a high emphasis on refugee ministry,” says Nielsen. “Ninety percent of our 300 members are former refugees. Some of our members are from Pakistan, where Christian persecution is at a very high level. Unfortunately, most Canadians have formed their general views of refugees through popular media sources and they have not been exposed to the heart-breaking stories of people who, for decades, have been in conflict zones. Only one percent of refugees in the world are allowed to immigrate to a third country like Canada.” 

Currently, City Church is working to establish Naomi House, a transitional home for incoming refugees located at 700 Ellice Avenue. They intend to provide extensive programming for newcomers, but in the end he sees friendships with established Canadians as the key for them to thrive in this foreign culture.

They have extended a hand to aid ODN once the sponsorship family arrives. Their Pakistani members await to help in practical areas such as translation and transportation needs.

“The biggest difficulty in getting a family here is the waiting and uncertainty,” says Kehler of ODN. “I’m in regular, almost daily, contact with the family. As refugees, they are in constant danger of being arrested, jailed, or even deported. They struggle with meeting their daily needs as they can only do occasional piecework.”

Though the core ODN committee has been established, Kehler admits that they will need much help from the community, both now and after the family arrives. The group has already located several local housing options. In the meantime, financial resources are their biggest need. 

On October 21, ODN will be hosting a fundraiser. This is a full day of events at the Heritage Centre held in two parts. Family Fun will be the theme from 4:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. Popular children’s entertainer Al Simmons will be performing along with a variety of other activities like bouncy castles, face-painting, and a pizza party. The cost is $20 per family, regardless of the size of the family. Pizza will be available at $5 per plate.

An evening Coffee House and Social, hosted by comedian Matt Falk, will begin immediately afterwards from 7:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. Attendees can expect live bands, a deejay and dance, a silent auction, and a midnight taco feast. Tickets are on sale for $10 per person.

For more information

For fundraiser tickets, visit: www.eventbrite.ca/e/open-doors...

Chris Rogers, “The Christians Held in Thailand After Fleeing 
Pakistan,” BBC News. February 26, 2016 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35654804).

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