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Church support ensures safe arrivals, even during a pandemic

In a year of travel bans, social distancing and delayed processing, Lutheran churches still managed to provide a new start in Canada for dozens of refugees in 2020.

Despite the restrictions, we worked with churches to bring 39 families to Canada with your support.

“The pandemic hasn’t diminished the need for refugee sponsorship — if anything, it’s increased the impact,” says Jennifer Ardon, one of Canadian Lutheran World Relief’s refugee program managers. And despite the fact that churches faced their own serious challenges in 2020, they weren’t discouraged from their commitment to support refugees, she says.

“More churches are getting involved, actually, including some who haven’t been involved for a quite a while. It’s amazing to see — churches are still really generous and engaged.”

That enthusiasm is desperately needed right now, according to Fikre Tsehai, Canadian Lutheran World Relief’s senior policy advisor.

“Even before Covid-19, there was a severe imbalance between the number of refugees who badly need resettlement and the number of available spaces — a huge disparity,” he says.

“The pandemic has worsened that because a lot of countries have closed their borders — suspending resettlement — and the U.S., which is historically the global leader in resettlement, has drastically reduced its numbers, from 110,000 to 14,000.

“There are a million and a half refugees who have already been screened and approved, who have no other issues, and who are in desperate circumstances, just sitting there trying to find a country that will take them, but in 2020, only 57,600 people  were resettled worldwide.”

According to Ardon, Canadian churches have taken the lead in showing that even with public health measures in place, refugee travel doesn’t need to be postponed or cancelled. Canada was one of the first countries to allow arrivals again last summer, after initially suspending all travel in March. But, Ardon hopes to see arrival numbers return to normal levels after 2020 saw far fewer refugees arrive in Canada. 71 people arrived through CLWR sponsorships in 2020, but applications were submitted for well over 200.

“We fully support the health measures in place, but people are in dangerous situations, they get proper COVID-19 screening abroad before travelling to Canada, then they quarantine carefully when they get here, so it’s a safe and a critical process and we’re concerned that there aren’t more arrivals,” says Ardon.

“As one example, we’re deeply concerned about the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia — many of the refugees we’re sponsoring are currently in refugee camps there, where there’s terrible conflict and they’re in immediate danger. Every day we get emails saying how scared they are. There are families with kids, single women with kids in a live conflict zone — they’re especially vulnerable.”

Tsehai agrees, explaining, “These are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They have already been displaced, as refugees they have basic necessities unmet, and you add to that the pandemic. That’s why we’ve been advocating with the government that refugee travel should be considered essential travel — that all health requirements should be carefully followed, but then the travel should be considered essential, as an urgent humanitarian undertaking.”

Reflecting on the new year ahead, Tsehai sees a big year for Canada.

“In the coming year, Canada has a huge role to mobilize collective action, being an example to resettlement countries, beginning with our neighbours to the south and in Europe — I think Canada will have its place again as a global leader, but it needs serious engagement.”

That role, he says, starts at a community level.

“The pandemic is an opportunity for us to reach out. We’ve seen that at a local level in the last year — people have been looking to their neighbours and taking care of each other, and we have to extend that to a global level and reach out to people who are victims, people who need rescue, who need secure lives, and to reawaken that compassion in Canada,” Tsehai says.

“Refugees have already lost their homeland, they’re struggling in temporary host countries and they’re looking to us to give them an opportunity to settle somewhere.”

As we celebrate Canadian Lutheran World Relief’s 75th anniversary, Tsehai sees a lesson for today in the organization’s history.

CLWR started at the same time that these humanitarian laws and principles were being established after the war — the Convention on Refugees, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so on — but today, this spirit of multilateralism is in jeopardy as each country looks to itself,” Tsehai says.

“We need global action to address global issues. And when governments are absent, it falls to organizations like CLWR and Lutheran World Federation, and all those people who cherish humanity, to come together and address the challenge. It will set a good example for others to also come together for global action.”

Tsehai says he’s optimistic after seeing the way the world has worked together in the effort to defeat COVID-19 with coordination on vaccine development.

“When there is a political will, we can address global challenges. We can find a solution.”

For Ardon, encouragement stems from what she saw from sponsoring churches in 2020.

“We’re so grateful for the people who have gone above and beyond, even during COVID-19, to extend compassion to refugees, providing settlement support and emotional support through whatever means necessary — virtual meetings and check-ins, porch drop-offs, masked airport arrivals, so much more.”

“The volunteers at these sponsoring churches are so amazing and no pandemic is going to stop them from helping people, so we’re so thankful for their support.”

Arrivals in 2020 came from countries of origin including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

If you donated, volunteered or prayed in support of refugees arriving in Canada in 2020, thank you!
You can find out more about helping refugees settle in Canada on our website at clwr.org/refugees