Written by the Ottawa Mennonite Church Refugee Assistance Program
Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC) has been involved with refugee sponsorship since 1979, when Canadians responded to the boatloads of refugees fleeing the Vietnam War. Mennonite Central Committee (the relief, development and peace organization of Anabaptist churches), together with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, set up the initial umbrella agreement to allow groups like OMC to privately sponsor refugees.
Since 1979 OMC has sponsored well over 100 families from all over the world including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Zaire/Congo, Somalia, Colombia, Iraq, Syria and more. Some have been full private sponsorships, others have been partially sponsored under various government programs, and some have been family reunifications which require little settlement support from volunteers.
Throughout, there has been strong support from the congregation, perhaps in part because many Mennonites themselves fled persecution in Europe & Russia, some centuries ago but others within their lifetimes. The congregation has grown from less than 100 members in 1979 to around 250 today. Although not a large number, many have volunteered as they are able. Some provide financial support, some donate in-kind items that are needed, some provide settlement support and others do the necessary committee work.
In recent years, the Refugee Assistance Program (RAP) at OMC has become more interested in education and advocacy around refugee issues as well. In that vein, we have hosted several events to which the broader community has been invited. One such event developed around a series of banners about migration called “People on the Move” produced by Mennonite Central Committee. In addition to a Sunday morning worship focus on migration and refugees, we held a public evening event. It was moving and memorable, culminating with a panel of invited guests (made up of former OMC sponsored refugees and those who had helped resettle) who spoke from the heart about their experiences.
Following are a few quotes from speakers that evening (their names have been changed):
From Amal, who came from Somalia via Yemen in 2001 with her single mom and 4 siblings: “As a refugee child you have to work twice as hard to prove to others that you are capable of doing anything that you put your mind to. For me, getting involved in school helped me make the transition to integrate into Canadian society but at the same time keeping in touch with who I am and where I came from.” Amal is now studying political science & African studies in university, hoping to specialize in refugee development, population displacement and forced migration.
From Shada, who came from Iraq via Jordan in 2013, while shopping: “Some people ask me: ‘Why did you come to Canada? Why don’t you go back to your country? Why don’t you dress like me?’ I say to one lady “If my country have safety as Canada, would we visit Canada or live Canada?’ My answer: ‘Of course we come visit. But my country no good safety. I love Canada. My country now is Canada. I have freedom. You have freedom.’ What Shada didn’t tell the group is that after this encounter the person questioning her said, “Welcome to Canada!”
Camila came to Canada from Colombia as a child in 2003 with her parents and sister. She recalled her family’s arrival at the Ottawa airport: “As the escalator descended, I remember seeing a group of strangers standing at the bottom of the escalators waiting for us. Seeing them I remember feeling an immense sense of relief. Relief from knowing that somehow those strangers would make everything better.” Now with a university degree, Camila has volunteered to translate for several Spanish speaking families sponsored since her arrival.
Camila’s mother spoke of the peace she and her husband felt, knowing they would never again have to flee from civil war. She revealed how hard it was “to trust the values you raised your daughters with have not been lost, as they were being molded by another culture, different dreams and new expectations.”
Volunteer translators and sponsors also spoke about their experiences welcoming refugees into their homes and lives. Often translators are not just translating language but also cultural norms. When a Muslim family was hosted by a family from our church for the first week, it was the easy playful friendship between their young daughters, and the love of video games that the men shared, that broke the ice.
We all have a story to tell. Our pasts shape who we are today and our dreams propel us into our futures. When we take the time to listen to another’s story, we learn not only about them but about our world. We grow as people and as communities when we share in each other’s stories and walk alongside each other.