"Far from perfect, but so worth it."
You can listen to a full podcast episode version of this story on MCC's podcast, Undercurrents
“We’re really just a collection of people who felt like spending time together and doing this,” says Katie Nolan, co-chair of Open Arms, a refugee sponsorship group based in Kemptville, Ontario, just south of Ottawa. In 2019, after years of being interested in refugee sponsorship, Nolan discovered the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR, or the ‘blended model’) program, a government program where the most vulnerable refugees are fast-tracked for resettlement and roughly half the costs of the year-long sponsorship are covered by the federal government. Now, more than two years after the official sponsorship timeline has finished, she shares some lessons learned from the process.
Lesson #1 Mentorship is important
To begin, Nolan put out an open invitation to her network of friends and colleagues to see if there was any interest in sponsoring a refugee. This included her friend Elisabeth Rubli who had participated in several resettlement efforts over the years. “Katie reached out and thought maybe that some of my experience might give them an idea of what’s realistic or what they might expect. And so, I just thought, ‘Okay, well I can come and share some of my experiences with you’... I had no intention of joining,” remembers Rubli. “I went to that initial meeting and it was a bunch of people around the dining table who basically had their heart on their sleeve,” recalls Rubli about the friendly and cooperative spirit of the group. “By the end of the meeting [people were saying], ‘I could do this, I could bring that, I know how to do this.’ And then at which point I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe I will get involved and stay, because it was pretty hard not to!’”
Once the group was committed to starting a sponsorship, they sought further mentorship from a group in a neighbouring community that had been doing refugee sponsorship work through their church for many years. “The pastor Marianne Emig Carr provided us with an extremely helpful shortcut, which was advising us to work with MCC,” says Nolan. “We’ve really benefited tremendously from working with MCC, just knowing that there was somebody out there we could bounce ideas off of: ‘Have you guys ever encountered this problem?’ ‘How have you handled it?’” Open Arms decided to sponsor a single individual and were eventually paired with an Iranian refugee named Massih Khiery who arrived in Kemptville in late 2019.
Lesson #2 Resettlement is a last resort
One might think resettling in Canada after living for years as a refugee would be a dream come true. In some ways, it is, but the reality is that most displaced people would have much rather returned to their home country. Resettling to a faraway land in completely foreign culture is a last resort.
“Canada can be a very, very difficult country to settle in and to live in,” admits Nolan. “It’s very expensive to live here, which makes it so much more difficult. There is a huge housing shortage. Getting your way through the medical system requires a lot of support and a lot of know-how, and it can be overwhelming. They often don’t really have much choice in the matter, and they really have to go through a process of reconciling to that. And I can see how that would be really hard and really heartbreaking when you haven’t had a choice and you just kind of have to take the hand you’re dealt.”
Because of this, newcomers’ relationship with their new country can be complicated. On the one hand, they are relatively safe. They are no longer living in a war zone, or in the midst of climate devastation. But they have also lost so much and for many, their standard of living has dropped considerably. “I mean, some of them had nice homes, they had nice jobs, they had cushy lives,” reflects Elisabeth Rubli. “They know they can’t go back. It’s just not there. But the other thing is they’ve lost family and maybe they don’t know how their family is. They don’t know if they’ll ever see them again. They carry a heavy burden.”
Complicating matters further, in the case of Open Arms and Khiery, was the pandemic that severely hampered their efforts at building a warm and connected community around Khiery. The mental health challenges that the pandemic brought were another added layer to the difficulties for resettling alone in a new country.
“People commented that they felt like being a part of the [sponsorship] had made their life better in their own community." - Katie Nolan
Lesson #3 It’s not just good for the newcomer, it’s good for your community, too.
Despite these challenges, both Nolan and Rubli were quick to say that the benefits of sponsoring a newcomer were enormous – not just for Massih Khiery, but for themselves, too.
“People commented that they felt like being a part of the initiative had made their life better in their own community, even before Massih had arrived,” says Nolan. “That was something that really stuck out to me… [when we come together like this,] we strengthen our community and we strengthen our support, our own networks in the community. We make more friendships and our kids make more friendships.”
Rubli agrees: “It was overwhelming to see how many people were willing to give of whatever skill sets they had. And in a small community like ours that so many people were willing to lend a hand in whichever way they could. And in the end, you know, it worked. It’s never perfect… but it worked!”
Nearly three years into his time in Canada, Khiery is still deeply connected with Nolan, Rubli and the community that welcomed him. His roots are deepening, in fact, as he became recently engaged to a Canadian woman from the community; they plan to marry this August, and the entire community will be there to celebrate with them.
To listen to the full story and to hear a few more lessons learned, listen on MCC's podcast Undercurrents. If you have questions about how your church or group of friends and community can change lives through refugee sponsorship under the blended model, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you live in Canada and want to learn more about sponsoring a refugee? Find out how MCC can help!