For 1,300 “extremely vulnerable” Syrian refugees who are in desperate need of help, it may be some time before they can eventually set foot on Canada’s soil.
Documentation to bring in up to 1,100 of them who are privately sponsored is taking two or three years, says Martin Mark, executive director of the Office for Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT), one of 21 private sponsorship organizations in the GTA.
The Canadian government committed to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of this year, including 1,100 to be supported through the Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH) program.
In the past six months, ORAT has submitted about 40 applications. Each case takes two to three years to process. So far, three churches have committed to helping sponsor some of the refugees. Mark said if everything goes well, these first 40 refugees will arrive in 2016 or 2017.
Help from the outside world is very important to the refugees as it lifts their spirit and gives them hope, said Mark, who went to the refugee camps last summer in Turkey and Lebanon to find potential applicants.
“It means a lot to the refugees because you are there alone,” Dr. Mark said. “You don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow. But at least sometimes you get a text message or an email in which people tell you nice stories, they tell you don’t worry we didn’t forget you.”
There are two ways for refugees to get private sponsorships, Mark said. One is through family reunification, which works only for the refugees who have families or relatives in Canada. Unfortunately for most of the refugees without family in Canada, the SAH program is their only hope.
Now, even family reunification is no longer an easy way to bring over refugees.
Sahel Zreik, a permanent resident of Syrian origin, said he tried to bring to Canada his father and sister, who still live in Latakia, Syria, but has failed.
“There is no way to bring them here,” Zreik said. “The only thing I can do is to apply for visiting visas for them. But the government won’t approve the visas because it knows if they come to Canada, they will try to stay here as refugees.”
Tarek is an 18-year-old refugee who fled Syria by himself and met Mark in Beirut. He had been two blocks away when his school exploded in front of him. If he had arrived on time that morning, he would have died in the attack. His parents sent him to his uncle, who lived in a relatively safer area. Then, the next day, his uncle’s house was flattened by a bomb.
When Mark joked with Tarek over the computer saying he might even get bored when he comes to Canada because life here is sometimes too peaceful, Tarek, still waiting in Beirut for someone to provide the sponsorship, smiled and seemed a little bit relieved.
This week, Dr. Mark will go to the west region of the Archdiocese of Toronto for a speech on the SAH program. He hopes that, through all the events, more people will participate in helping the refugees.