By Nicholas Pope, Advocacy Research Intern in MCC’s Ottawa Office. Nicholas has a law degree from the University of Calgary. He has served with MCC in Palestine and also Alberta, where he has been the MCC Alberta Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator. He continues in that role part-time, while serving in the Ottawa Office.
In December 2016, a woman named Lucille, from the small town of Stettler, Alberta, contacted me at MCC’s refugee sponsorship office in Calgary. She was inquiring about sponsoring a Syrian refugee family her church was in contact with. She had followed how the war in Syria was causing many people to flee their country. She was passionate to help.
Before we could act on Lucille’s request, however, the government announced it was revoking an exemption introduced in 2015 to simplify the private sponsorship and resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Canada. This revocation meant that people like Lucille, who wished to sponsor Syrian refugees, had only one option: going through a Sponsorship Agreement Holder like MCC, rather than being able to use another route like Group of Five or Community Sponsor.
On top of that, since 2012 the government has limited the number of refugees a Sponsorship Agreement Holder can sponsor, in order to work through the massive (sometimes 5 year) backlogs in Canadian visa offices. In 2017, for example, MCC Alberta was given permission to sponsor only 59 individuals. As the Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator for MCC Alberta, I had hundreds of people approach me, requesting to sponsor well over 600 individuals.
There was, however, another option for Lucille. That option is the Blended Visa Office Referred Program (BVOR); it is not subject to any caps. In this type of sponsorship, the in-Canada sponsors do not choose the specific refugees they will sponsor; rather, MCC matches them with a family that has been specifically referred by UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) because that family is especially in need of resettlement.
I shared information about the BVOR program with Lucille, and she took this information back to her group in Stettler. By May they had decided to do a BVOR instead. After some initial paperwork and orientation, we were ready to make a match.
The group initially hoped to sponsor a Syrian family, but all the UNHCR-referred Syrian families had recommended destinations for other Canadian towns because of family connections. This didn’t stop Lucille and her group. After further discussion, they decided they were willing to sponsor a family from anywhere there was need.
At the end of June, we matched them with a family from central Africa. There were a few delays, as often occurs in refugee resettlement, but the family arrived safely in November.
I recently received an email from Lucille that was empty except for this link to a story from the Stettler local newspaper. It outlines the harrowing tale of the newcomer family — a story that involves government corruption, assassination, political persecution, fleeing through five different countries, election to leadership of a refugee camp, being reconnected with a daughter thought dead for nine years, and finally arriving in Canada.
Lucille and her Stettler group did not get to do the refugee sponsorship they envisioned back in December of 2016, but I do not think they mind. Many other groups have had a similar experience.
More than once, I have witnessed how people, who were touched by the crisis in Syria and initially focused on helping specific Syrians, open their hearts to sponsor others in need—often families and individuals from overlooked crises, as in Lucille’s case. It is another example of the surprising joy of refugee sponsorship.
In 2017, MCC sponsored 427 individuals through the BVOR program. That is one third of all BVORs in Canada.
Exacerbated by the United States’ recent decision to reduce their refugee intake from 110,000 to 45,000 per year, the UNHCR is struggling to find places to resettle families that are most vulnerable. The UNHCR estimates that only about 10 percent of refugees who require resettlement in 2017 and 2018 will have that opportunity.
Through the BVOR program, MCC and communities across Canada are doing their part to help.
If you would be interested sponsoring refugees through the BVOR program, visit mcccanada.ca/supporting-refugees