By Rev. Patricia Allison
On October 7th, 2015, as the country sorrowed over images of drowned children desperately seeking to escape war-torn Syria, the Archdeacon of London, Sam Thomas, brought an impassioned plea to the London Deanery Council: how could we, as a Deanery, respond to this urgent need? He proposed that the Deanery immediately establish a fund and begin the process of sponsoring a refugee family. The motion was carried overwhelmingly, and the London Deanery Refugee Response was launched.
Fast forward to the next Deanery Council meeting on February 16th, when the Deanery team was able to report that they had rented a townhouse in an appropriate area of the city, furnished it completely, right down to pictures on the walls, soap and shampoo in the bathrooms, and appropriate basics in the kitchen, all ready for a family of two parents and four young children, who were expected to arrive at any moment. Less than a week later, on February 21st, the Omer family landed in Toronto, and the next day they were driven to their new home in London.
A great deal of activity and cooperation happened in a relatively short time, and the London Deanery is extremely fortunate that so many generous and energetic people came forward to help make this happen.
The London Deanery is a mixture of large, well-resourced churches, several of whom have their own refugee projects, and small, less-well-resourced churches who very much wanted to help but could only do so as part of a larger group. The most valuable asset of all was the people with experience, and we have relied heavily on them. Many of them are also key people in their own parish refugee sponsorships, so we are especially grateful that they have taken on the extra tasks of the Deanery project and guided us through what for many of us was completely new territory.
At the beginning, we were all a little perplexed about how exactly a Deanery-level project would work. How could twenty-odd churches of such disparate means work together?
Inevitably the critical leadership has come from one or two churches with the largest congregations and the crucial experience. We have attempted, however, to keep all of the Deanery’s churches connected and involved by sharing as much communication as possible with all members of the Deanery Council and asking them to share with their parishes. Following a specific request from outside of the Deanery, from a parish too small to manage their own refugee project but anxious to help, it, too, was added to the Deanery response. Appeals for furniture and clothing and other necessities went out to everyone, as did updates on the progress of the sponsorship when they were available. The latter was something of a problem because, as we discovered, sponsorship involves long periods of absolute silence and inactivity, followed by short periods of panic! Some parishes were upset at not hearing what was happening, when, in fact, nothing was happening at all.
Given the difficulties of the process, the co-operation across churches has been remarkable. Some churches have responded at an institutional level, and contributed a great deal by way of time and donations, while in other parishes there has been no institutional response, but individuals have helped out in many vital ways, delivering furniture, donating items, purchasing last-minute supplies, and generally being available to help, making this a truly co-operative project.
That first step of assembling sufficient funds to support a sponsorship application was achieved very quickly.
We have enough money to sponsor a second family once our first family is settled, and the line in the Deanery account remains open for further donations. We realized early on, however, that donations need to be made through individual churches, since the Deanery cannot issue tax receipts.
We held an initial meeting in November to explore what expertise we had and how to proceed. The next step was to create a list of areas of responsibility, and find designated leaders to take care of each of them. Most of the team leaders brought considerable experience and expertise to their tasks, but some areas were so new to us that we all needed to learn as we went along. Together, the team leaders sought out and attended information sessions and workshops across the city, gathering valuable information, making useful contacts, and generally preparing.
Some of the team leaders started their tasks immediately – after all, if we were going to be ready at short notice, as we had been warned we should be, housing and furnishing had to be tackled immediately, and Monica Snow, the team leader, swung into action right away. Finding appropriate housing proved to be quite a difficult task, but the response to our request for furniture donations was immediate and overwhelming. Storage very quickly became our biggest problem!
In early January we were assigned a family, who were cleared to travel as soon as possible, and we were given detailed information about them. With this information in hand, we began to make specific plans, but then we learned that the family had been re-assigned elsewhere and we had been allocated a different family, who were also designated as ready to travel.
At a meeting in mid-January, we decided to go ahead and rent accommodation as soon as we found something suitable. The family might arrive on short notice, and accommodation was proving to be difficult to find. On top of that we were having difficulty finding places to store donated furniture and supplies, so it made sense to go ahead.
A week later we found an appropriate townhouse with immediate possession. The property managers (Arnsby Property) were extremely helpful and accommodating, being eager to help with the refugee effort. Team leader Nancy Adams was able to obtain tenant insurance from State Farm, who were also eager to help refugees and willing to be very flexible.
We took possession of the townhouse on February 3rd, and began the process of moving everything in. Last minute lists of bathroom and kitchen needs were sent out to some smaller congregations, who were anxious to help, and the opportunity to tackle a manageable task was eagerly embraced.
And so it was that on February 22nd, after a joyful trip down the 401, with the children waving their new Canadian flags at everyone on the road and clutching their new soft toys, the family moved into their new home and began their new lives in safety. Dinner was in the refrigerator, the toy boxes were stocked, the beds were made, and a whole host of people stood ready to help them negotiate schools and medical needs, language learning and shopping, bill-paying and understanding Canadian life. This is only the beginning: our commitment is for the long process of welcoming strangers in need and helping them become new Canadians, and all the Anglican churches in the city – and a few outside – are behind it.