Many will remember the wrenching image of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach in September 2015. For Mindemoya Missionary Church on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, those graphic moments of news coverage sparked the beginning of their journey into refugee sponsorship.
Sarah Quackenbush, a member of the Mindemoya congregation, spoke at length about the sponsorship of, at first five, and within the next few years another three families from war-torn Eritrea, an East African nation. In all, people from five small communities on Manitoulin Island banded together and welcomed 38 people to a new start in Canada.
How they prepared to welcome refugee families into their community
In October of 2015, Sarah and her husband Ben began an application with Mennonite Central Committee to sponsor a family. “The beautiful thing was that at the same time we were researching and starting the process, others around us were saying they too desired to be obedient to Jesus and to be His hands and feet, and they joined in.”
There were conversations in homes, churches and places of work, and many were asking how Manitoulin could help. They posted information in community newspapers, and people came out of the woodwork with donations. Due to this amazing response and desire to help, they were initially able to apply for five refugee families. Five Manitoulin families each created a core team of 6-8 people, one team in each of five different Island communities where the refugees would settle. The group leaders were from Mindemoya Church. The majority of the group members were motivated by their faith. Still, many others in the communities also stepped forward and did whatever they could to prepare for the coming families.
Having applied for the first five families under the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) Program, the UNHCR identified the refugees, and the Government of Canada provided up to six months of income support through the Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP). It was up to the church, as the private sponsors to provide another six months of financial aid and up to a year of social and emotional support. Along with the financial support, the church provided housing with all the necessary furnishings, English as a Second Language instruction, clothing, help for each family to navigate school and health care systems, banking and budgeting, and cultural experiences. In short, everything they needed to know to embrace life in their new country.
Two Eritrean families were already living on Manitoulin during the sponsorship process. Both made themselves available for translation and cultural integration. One of the teenagers spoke fluent Tigrinya, the language of the refugee families. The core teams would also take responsibility to teach skills that would lead to eventual employment. And, of course, daily hospitality, emotional support and friendship were significant needs. Families six, seven and eight were members of the original five families. It was important for the families and to the sponsorship group that families stay together; some family members hadn’t seen their parents and siblings for over 12 years. Between 2016-2019 these additional families arrived on Manitoulin through private sponsorship.
Addressing the risk of refugee sponsorship
On February 16, 2016, the sponsors drove to the Toronto Airport with excitement but also nervousness to welcome the first families. There was some apprehension. “What do we have to offer?” “We’re in over our heads.” “They don’t want to come to Manitoulin, to isolation.” They knew it was a risk.
“But,” says Sarah, “The truth is – to follow Jesus is to follow Him into the unknown, into the risk, into the uncomfortable, because that’s where Jesus meets you. That’s where it is obvious that our trust is in God, and it’s where He is present and working.”
One of the families had spent 15 years in a Refugee Camp, and another had lived there nine years – days were all the same, living in a tent with a dirt floor and meagre food rations, few possessions, little hope.
That first day back on Manitoulin after the Toronto trip, Sarah and Ben had the special joy of welcoming a young Mom and her two young children into their home for two weeks until their home was ready. They formed a bond in that time, and over the next year, they did life together. “Whatever we were doing, they were with us. Our family grew by three.”
The folks on the Island needn’t have worried about what the newcomers would think about their new communities. As time went on, the families often remarked that Manitoulin was the perfect place in which to start. Small towns made it easier to get around, and everyone knew who they were and was eager to help. The children were fluent within a few short months. The schools and the medical community extended their support. One man from the Mindemoya congregation taught driving skills to everyone interested.
How refugee sponsorship changed lives
Now, in 2020, five years later, all of the newcomers have left Manitoulin and have settled in various places across Canada, but many are still in close touch with the people who served and loved them on the Island. One, who was a young teenager when he arrived, is now in College and will have the chance to someday do what he wants to do, not what he has to do to survive. And one family who arrived as Muslims has come to know Jesus and are enthusiastic believers.
In a letter, one of the new families says:
“I would like to say thank you very much for what you did for me since I arrived to Canada and continue to still do for me. You have given me light in my life… It was a big stress relief to live so closely to our sponsors. This gave us a great start to life in Canada. I am happy and so are my kids. Because of the sponsorship, the kids were able to participate in sports and activities I didn’t even know about. We all learned to skate and share Canada’s beloved sport of hockey… I can’t find the words that I want to say from my heart, only God knows what you mean to me.”
The joy of following Jesus
Was it hard work? The sponsorship process and everything else that went along with integrating and nurturing the families? Absolutely it was.
But what if they had not done it?
Sarah says, “If we hadn’t been obedient to Jesus’ calling for us, if we hadn’t opened our home and life up to these families, we would never have shared in the joy of a mother who had tears in her eyes the first time her son played hockey with his team. We would never have been able to laugh along with the families as they zoomed down the snowy hill on toboggans. Or had the overwhelming pride of seeing Romme, a young man go off to College. Or rejoiced when a Muslim family of 7 came to saving faith in Jesus.”
They would not have seen eight families, with restored hope, fresh confidence, and new skills launched in their new country. “It has been an incredible experience in which God allowed us to partner with Him. We felt the presence and nearness of God throughout it all. The work pales in comparison with the joy of following Jesus.”
Note: If you want to learn more about, or are considering getting involved in sponsoring refugees, contact our Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.