East York advocacy group creating a ‘bridge’ between refugees and Canadians

Indonesia is a transit point for thousands of refugees waiting to resettle in countries like Canada

Canadians and Refugees members holding Canadian flags at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. (Courtesy Canadians and Refugees)
Canadians and Refugees wants to raise awareness on Hazaara refugees in Indonesia.  

Rahmat Rahyab arrived in Canada five months ago. He’s originally from Afghanistan, but spent six years of his life as a refugee in what he calls a prison-like detention centre in Indonesia.

Rahyab fled Afghanistan, like many others, as violence from the Taliban has been on the rise in the last couple of years since they retook control of the country.

He escaped Afghanistan after his family home was attacked by the Taliban. He never saw his family again.

His six years in Indonesia was were not easy. While they are able to escape the violence in Afghanistan, refugees landed in a place where they also lack freedom.

The place where he was held was “a place where we couldn’t move freely, with high walls and barbed wires,” Rahyab said. “We were all treated like criminals.”

Refugees were not allowed to work, get an education, travel, or move freely, Rahyab said. They were stuck in limbo.

Resettlement can take years

Indonesia is home to more than 13,700 refugees, according to United Nations’ ReliefWeb. More than 7,000 refugees are Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group generally Shia Muslims, that has been targeted by the Sunni majority in Afghanistan.

Indonesia was originally meant as a transit point for refugees while they wait for resettlement in other countries, such as Canada or Australia. But resettlement periods have been long, years long for many.

One East York organization is working to get these refugees settled faster.

Canadians and Refugees was founded by David Barnes, and its head office is located in East York. A couple of years ago, Barnes was involved in a private sponsorship program, which allows Canadians to help refugees resettle under Canada’s refugee and humanitarian program.

The sponsors support a refugee for the sponsorship period with things like start-up costs, monthly basic necessities, and supporting refugees socially and emotionally.

Barnes began by putting together teams to help sponsor refugees, and he realized then Canadians don’t understand how they can make a difference. “I didn’t even know [the program] existed,” he said.

‘The power of human connection’

About a year and a half ago, Barnes met a young refugee from Afghanistan through one of their Zoom meetings who was stuck in Indonesia. He asked a neighbour to talk to him so that she could write a story that could be used in their work, and could potentially help bring the young man to Canada.

Within a month, they were able to gather a team and raise the money they needed to help the refugee.

“For me that just confirmed the power of human connection,” Barnes said. “When we think of world crises, none of us can solve it [by] ourselves. In fact, we feel pretty powerless.”

That’s when the inspiration struck. “How can we raise awareness across this country about the power of the private sponsorship program and how individual Canadians can make a difference?” Barnes said.

People holding Canadian flags at the airport.
The strength of human connection is what started this mission and continues to drive it. (Photo provided by Rahmat Rahyab).

Rahyab pays it forward

Rahyab and Barnes meet through the Zoom meetings that the group hosts. Rahyab was 17 at the time.

Barnes and other Canadians set out to spread the word about Rahyab’s situation along with others. They posted his story on a crowdfunding website. After two years, they were able to reach their goal to bring Rahyab to Canada.

Since his arrival in Canada, Rahyab has joined Barnes’ organization to help bring more refugees from Indonesia.

“I’ve received dozens of text messages from my fellow refugees that were asking me to find them sponsors or how they can find sponsors,” he said.

The goal for them is to raise awareness of what is happening in Indonesia and create a human connection between refugees and Canadians.

“We really want to connect and build that bridge between Canadians and those in Indonesia,” said Alysha Sheehan a volunteer with the organization. “We also want them to come here and keep this bridge.”

Members of Canadians and Refugees pose in a group for a photo
Canadians and Refugees’ goal is to create a community that can help those in need in Indonesia. (Photo provided by Rahmat Rahyab).

At the moment they have a website, in which refugees can register and people can volunteer – and on Sundays, they have chats with the refugees, there they have been able to meet people that need help, but also make new friends.

Volunteer Monica Logtenberg met a young man who she wants to help bring to Canada.

“I’m helping to bring him to Canada,” she said, “which is thrilling, he’s basically my best friend … he is an inspiration, it brings tears to my eyes when I think about all that he has to offer.”

Canadians and Refugees held a webinar in March so participants could learn how they can be part of this organization as well as the different ways that they can help. They hope to host more events like these to raise more awareness.

They know what they are doing is uncommon and that it can be overwhelming, as volunteer Sarah Katz explained, but they are always able to guide people so that they too can be part of the movement.

They want people to understand the power of human connection and how humanity doesn’t have any borders, one volunteer said.

“We are all human beings, we have the same red blood, and we all share the same oxygen,” said volunteer Mian Samair Ahmad, who said he always wanted to help humanitarian causes.

“It does not mean that if you are born in another part of the world that you don’t have the same right to those privileges.”

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Posted: Apr 8 2023 9:00 am
Filed under: Community work News