40 years of collective sponsorship: refugee testimonies and a look at the history of the program

May 30, 2019 — Last May 16, at Maison Bellarmin, took place the event Le parrainage collectif d'hier à aujourd'hui: 40 ans de solidarité au Québec, organized by the Réseau des organismes et groupes de parrainage de réfugiés au Québec, of which the Jesuit Refugee Service is a member. Several testimonies reminded us that policies and collective sponsorship have a real impact on the lives of refugees and that the history of the past 40 years is still relevant.

According to Hugo Ducharme (JRS and Coordinating Committee of the RQOPR), the breakfast seminar was a success: “It’s great to acknowledge a program that has existed for a long time, but acknowledging it just for the sake of it is not enough. We must look back to be able to plan ahead. And we succeeded in energizing people so that they can continue to work.”

A True Impact

Mgr. Pierre Blanchard spoke of the involvement of the Archdiocese of Montreal along with various parishes since the beginnings of the group sponsorship program. He also underlined the involvement of citizens and their generosity through donations of money and goods. Nearly 6,000 refugees were sponsored by religious communities in Montreal and he himself sponsored 18 Vietnamese who stayed with him.

Amongst these people was Phat Nguen. Today, this man who heads up a sushi restaurant spoke of his journey from the overcrowded fishing boat that, under a scorching sun, brought him and his family to a refugee camp in Japan, until his meeting with Pierre Blanchard and his arrival to Québec. “Thank you for this welcoming land of tolerance. My name is Phat and I am a proud Canadian Quebecer.”

Afterwards, Jean-Marie Romeder spoke to us about his decision to join Les marraines solidaires, a group sponsorship organization that welcomed a Syrian family. Solidarity is at the heart of this decision: “I was given a lot in my life and I want to give back.” Yara, a member of the sponsored family, told the story of how her family had to flee Syria, a wonderful country in the past, because living there was hell where death, bombs, gunfire and drugs were now the norm. “We did not choose what happened in Syria. We would have liked to continue living there.” Her family then had to seek refuge in Lebanon.

There, there was no future for refugees. With no news from her father who had left to find another homeland, her ill mother asked her to write some emails. Only one group responded: les marraines solidaires. After a first Skype call with the Québec group, “it was surreal to be considered like a person and not just like a refugee.” Les marraines solidaires helped Fetna, Yara and Yasser come to Québec, supporting them not only financially but also emotionally and mentally and helping them with the culture shock. And happily, Yara’s father arrived 15 months after them.

Refugee Sponsorship, Then and Now

Several people also spoke one after the other to explain the context in which the sponsorship program had been established and to speak about the current situation. Rivka Augenfeld, from the TCRI, went back 40 years in time. Under JoefClark’s minority government, a refugee sponsorship program was created within the federal government to show the example and motivate citizens to participate. In fact, the government had then committed to welcome 16,000 refugees, in addition to matching the number of families sponsored by citizens.

In Québec, the first immigration minister of the Parti québécois was Jacques Couture (who had been and who once again became a Jesuit after leaving politics.) Amongst other things, he succeeded in mobilizing Quebecers in favor of the Boat people and had the idea of hiring Louise Gagné as the first Associate Secretary of Refugees.

Louise Gagné, today chairperson of the Board of Directors of Actions interculturelles, attended the breakfast seminar. She began her presentation by underlining that work with the refugees “is so current that we do not need to focus on the past,” but that to understand the context of the sponsorship program, qualified at the time as a “little gem of a program,” can still be useful. Her presentation highlighted all of the energy of Jacques Couture’s department. Elected in 1976, he asked his team the next year to focus on the refugee issue.

In 1978, the team submitted a report entitled Le réfugié, un étranger malgré lui (Refugees, Strangers Despite Themselves.) The Immigration Ministry team then presented a twofold Québec refugee aid policy: the welcome here and the aid where the refugees were. The mobilization of Québec organizations was lengthy: for them, people fleeing persecution were traitors.

However, after 5 years of working with and educating organizations, journalists and citizens, Ms. Gagné helped to change attitudes. Minister Couture launched an idea which has lasted even today: enable groups of citizens, and not only organizations, to sponsor. And the response of Quebecers was favorable since 10,000 people then worked to welcome refugees. They were in the minority but very active in their neighborhoods. This movement of support from Quebecers and Canadians was rewarded.

In 1986, the Nansen Medal was awarded to the Canadian people in recognition of their response to the Indochinese refugee movement. “Small energy grows through work with the proper resources,” said Ms. Gagné.

Jean-Nicolas Beuze, representative of the UN Refugee Agency in Canada, also spoke. “There is a true sense of solidarity that is delightful,” he began, “but the wind can turn and we are not always conscious enough to realize that we are pushed more and more by much less tolerant and much less inclusive movements.” Nevertheless, this solidarity is more important than ever, with an astronomical number of displaced persons in the world, namely nearly 70 million people.

Here in Canada, we hear about certain groups of displaced persons such as the Syrians, but less about others such as the Sudanese displaced to Uganda or even the true motivations behind the groups of migrants making their way to North America. There is less solidarity emanating from governments, including the political positions regarding displaced persons which are increasingly negative. The result: limited budgets with dramatic consequences on the number of refugees that the HCR can help.

Private sponsorship is a last resort, because displaced persons often wish to return home, but it is nevertheless an essential need in some cases. Another fight: we must reverse the trend which showcases refugees as welfare recipients, persons who remain vulnerable. On the contrary, among newcomers, refugees are the ones that most succeed in passing the citizenship test and that establish the most firms that create employment.

Ms. Augenfeld, Ms. Gagné and Mr. Beuze all highlighted that at different times in the last 40 years and still today, after encouraging beginnings with innovative policies regarding the welcoming of refugees, governments had a tendency to withdraw and to make decisions based on perceptions drawn from the population and not on the facts.

The Jesuits become involved

Norbert Piché, National Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, recalled the involvement of the Jesuits. The JRS was established in 1980 by Father Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Upon returning from a trip to Asia, while millions of Boat People were fleeing the communist regime of Vietnam, Father Arrupe issued a call to action to all Jesuits. This is how the JRS was born in many areas of the world. In Canada, the Jesuits also established a sponsorship program, one of the first in Québec. “Bravo to all those who had the impulse to welcome foreigners ever since the Boat People and everyone else since then, including all of us here,” concluded Mr. Piché.

In Conclusion: Humans and Hope

At the end of the breakfast seminar, Norbert Piché and Rivka Augenfeld gave a heartfelt tribute to Sylvain Thibault, “a very human man with a great heart,” who is leaving his position as coordinator of the TCRI’s Refugee Sponsorship Component. Finally, Nayiri Tavlian, president of Hay Doun and lecturer at the Université de Montréal, raised a cry of support for the refugees:

"We need to face this challenge: love others. Have the courage to love others because we must. The courage to believe that human beings are still beautiful. To see others, to meet them, to know them and to recognize them. The life of each human being is precious and has the same value. I believe in us, together, again and again."

What lessons can be learnt from this event and from the past 40 years of group sponsorship? First, that refugees are above all human beings, individuals and that they must be welcomed and treated as such. Then, that the current work by organizations such as Jesuit Refugee Service is just as essential today as it was during the last four decades. And finally, that despite a political context which is less and less open to Others, we must sustain and encourage the support of marginalized persons.





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