THE BLOG
01/29/2015 05:16 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

A Long, Burdensome Road for Syrian Refugees and Their Canadian Sponsors

Militias set fire to homes with families still inside. From her safe refuge here in Canada, Dahlia heard the horrific reports and knew she had to get her family out of Syria. But to sponsor them as refugees in Canada would take an agonizing 18 months of bureaucracy and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Dahlia's ordeal raises the question, Are the demands of sponsorship too great for Canadians to bear?

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HANOVER, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 11: Syrian refugees prepare to travel to an accomodation centre to take part in optional cultural orientation courses before being relocated, at Hanover Airport on September 11, 2013 in Hanover, Germany. 107 Syrian refugees arrived in Hanover from refugee camps in Lebanon today, as part of a resettlement program which will allow them to stay in Germany for two years. They are the first group of refugees who have been offered asylum in Germany after being deemed vulnerable by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, having escaped the ongoing conflict in Syria. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Militias set fire to homes with families still inside. From her safe refuge here in Canada, Dahlia heard the horrific reports and knew she had to get her family out of Syria. But to sponsor them as refugees in Canada would take an agonizing 18 months of bureaucracy and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Dahlia's ordeal raises the question: Are the demands of sponsorship too great for Canadians to bear?

More than 3.8 million people have fled Syria since conflict erupted in 2011 in what is now considered the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. Canada has opened its doors to 1,275 Syrian refugees and recently promised space for 10,000 more. But immense challenges face both the refugees who desperately want to start a new life here and Canadians, like Dahlia, who want to help them.

We were surprised to learn that 60 per cent of the new Syrian refugees will have to be supported, not by the government, but entirely by private Canadian sponsors, such as church groups.

Dahlia (her name has been changed to protect her family) is an Arabic teacher who immigrated to Canada with her husband over 10 years ago. Her parents and many siblings with their families--Palestinians living for decades in exile in Syria--stayed behind in a suburb of Syria's capital, Damascus. As that city became a war zone, Dahlia looked for a way to get her family to safety.

Most of Dahlia's family escaped into refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon. There, they applied for refugee status in Canada.

With few spots for government-sponsored refugees, Dahlia sought in vain for a group to sponsor her family under the Canadian private sponsorship of refugees program. This program allows groups like churches or community service organizations to sponsor refugees to Canada. But there is no publicly available directory to help people like Dahlia find accredited organizations.

The program does allow five or more Canadian citizens to come together and start their own group. So Dahlia found sympathetic people in her community of Hamilton, Ont. willing to join her in becoming sponsors.

Even with a sponsor, it took Dahlia's 13 family members 18 months to get through the bureaucracy-laden process of interviews and medical tests before they were allowed to come to Canada.

The challenges for both sponsors and refugees were far from over.

Canadian sponsors must take responsibility for all the refugee's expenses for up to a year. The Canadian Council for Refugees told us that $25,000 is a reasonable estimate to support a refugee family. But since the Canadian government slashed healthcare coverage for refugees in 2012, the bill can skyrocket if a refugee arrives needing any medical care.

Dahlia has covered costs through donations of money, and goods like furniture and clothing, from her community and local churches and mosques. When her family's first apartment was infested with bedbugs, she had to replace all their furniture.

That isn't her only challenge. As a sponsor, Dahlia must hold her family's hands through every stage of settling in, such as finding a home, enrolling kids in school, and getting language training. None of Dahlia's family speaks English. Fortunately, Dahlia can be there to speak for them most of the time. Other Canadian sponsors who do not speak their refugee's language would have to hire an interpreter to help.

Her family is slowly settling in, but Dahlia frets about her two brothers who still haven't made it here. One is still stuck in Syria. The other is in Lebanon desperately finishing his refugee application, fearing police there could deport him back to Syria at any moment.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told us her organization is concerned the Canadian government is increasingly downloading the responsibility and cost of helping refugees onto private Canadian sponsors. This, Dench says, will deter more Canadians from becoming sponsors.

Canada has a global reputation for generosity and compassion toward people in need. We are that cliché land of immigrants and refugees. Thirty-five years ago we became home for almost 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, the "boat people" who have since enriched our nation. We don't want to see that legacy fade into history.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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