We are, at our heart, a church that flows from the life and experience of refugees.
Millions of Christians around the world are readying to celebrate Christmas, recalling an event that has at its heart a migrant family forced to flee persecution. Our homes are decorated, the gifts bought, and seasonal cookies and favourite meals are being prepared.
Yet right here on our doorstep, more than two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we face a refugee crisis of our own. Residents of Toronto have been shocked this year to find refugee claimants sleeping on the streets because there simply are not places to house people fleeing their home countries or seeking a better life in Canada. Complicating matters has been various levels of government bickering over who is responsible for related issues. The expedited release of the federally committed $97 million, to provide shelter for refugee claimants, would help ease the current pressure being felt in the City of Toronto.
As a result, with the city facing other societal pressures, from budget battles to a rise in homelessness, there simply have not been enough beds to provide people who had placed their hopes in Canada. And with winter soon upon us – and the cold weather already here – the situation is becoming more urgent every day.
Recently, the Social Justice and Advocacy Committee of Catholic Charities met with Loly Rico, the Executive Director of FCJ Refugee Centre to discuss homelessness and the plight of refugee claimants. The FCJ Refugee Centre was established with the help of the Sisters of Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ.) to help uprooted people overcome the challenges of rebuilding their lives in Canadian society, offering an integrated model of refugee protection, settlement services, and education, including shelter for women and their children.
The meeting was informative but concerning. The Refugee Centre, for example, is serving not only many refugee claimants but also precarious migrants facing homelessness. Precarious migrants include temporary foreign workers, international students, victims or survivors of human trafficking, and undocumented individuals. While there are limited shelters and other support available to refugees, there are no specific services for these precarious migrants, and a recent Toronto Star investigation exposed just how vulnerable migrants can be to various forms of abuse.
Recent information indicates that many new immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants are in the shelter system. Unfortunately, funding has not increased to help shelters cope with the increased need.
While Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and staff are exploring various solutions, pressure mounts daily. Exacerbating the housing problem for refugees are delays in the immigration process. A backlog in the process contributes to refugee claimants not being able to access some support services as the eligibility criteria do not allow them to participate in some supportive programs.
And, while governmental help is appreciated, it is often not enough. For many refugees who are eligible for social or emergency financial assistance, the single-person support of $392 for rent is not enough as the rent of a bed with a bathroom is now about $1,000 in Toronto.
When the City of Toronto witnessed newly arrived migrants and refugees sleeping on the streets earlier this year, various places of worship opened their doors, although often the arrangement has not been sustainable in the long term. It’s time for all of us to think more creatively about where we can find spaces to house migrants and refugees, including spaces in private homes, creating more shelter spaces, and repurposing underused buildings. It’s simply wrong to tell people they are welcome only to arrive and find nowhere to stay.
We are, at our heart, a church the flows from the life and experience of refugees. The Christmas narrative that begins Jesus’s earthly ministry includes his family having to flee to Egypt, just days after his birth, to escape King Herod’s brutal edict to murder young children.
With the refugee experience now documented for millennia, it seems reasonable to hope we have learned as a world about the horrors faced by refugees. We should be mindful that millions of people experience great suffering because they must uproot themselves because their safety – and that of their loved ones – is threatened daily. Yet today, the number of refugees is climbing, with an estimated 35-million people around the world considered refugees, forced from their homes for many reasons, including political, cultural and economic persecution.
This, therefore, is not a problem unique to Southern Ontario. But Canada does stand apart from many other places in that we are a country at peace, with plenty of natural resources and, inflation notwithstanding, a pretty strong economy. There is more we can do, as individuals
Many biases and misconceptions exist about refugees, including what they are entitled to when they are accepted by Canada. They receive basic financial support and basic healthcare, with some guidance as to how to settle. Some communities – e.g., church groups – serve as private sponsors, working with the federal government to house the newcomers and help them find employment. But this support – and the obligations assumed by private sponsors — is temporary, and settling in a country far from home, with different customs and languages, perhaps a radically different climate, and numerous forms to fill out, among other challenges – all far from family or friends– must be very challenging.
The pressure is on from the time refugees land in Canada, since assistance is limited and temporary. Finding stable employment can be hard, and locating affordable housing can seem impossibly difficult in the overheated real estate market of the Greater Toronto Area.
That’s why the Catholic community needs to educate ourselves about the issues surrounding refugees, digging deeper than superficial headlines. Many of the member agencies of Catholic Charities see refugees on a regular basis and can attest to the exceptional challenges refugees live out daily as they attempt to build a new life in Canada.
Education includes understanding that anyone filing a refugee claim is thoroughly vetted before being accepted. And, as numbers of claimants rise, it is important to remember that, as crises grow around the world, Canada remains, mercifully, a beacon of hope and promise. People who have been involved in sponsoring refugees describe the experience as life-changing, for both refugees and sponsors.
Sadly, modern life continues to create refugees, whether fleeing war in Ukraine, or war in the Middle East, or the ongoing sorrows of Afghanistan. It’s a reality that, for Catholics, should bring to mind Matthew Chapter 25.
“And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing?” his disciples ask Christ, and he explains that any time we encounter someone in need, we are encountering him. The question is how we respond.