News Local

Local minister speaks of good will thwarted

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today


There but for the grace of God, said Rev. David Lander of the Castleton-Grafton United Church Pastoral Charge, is a phrase that applies to the recent news of a Syrian refugee family who experienced tragedy while trying to save themselves.

People around the world have been horrified at the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehan - Syrian refugees who died this week when their boat sank off a Greek island.

Their father Abdullah survived.

The family's tragedy came to light when little Aylan's body washed up on a Turkish beach. The horror was compounded when it was learned they had hoped to be accepted by Canada for refugee status.

Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly said he’d hand-delivered the offer of a Vancouver woman to sponsor the family to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander earlier this year. The application was rejected.

Alexander has now put his re-election campaign on hold to look into the matter.

Lander, whose 2014 application on behalf of the Castleton-Grafton United Church Pastoral Charge to sponsor a young Syrian family of five was successful, was horrified by the incident.

“Those pictures are all over the world, and it's pretty poignant for Canada because that family was refused,” he said.

It was a different story in Cobourg Aug. 19, 2014, when the Syrian family arrived. Church members and community supporters had worked for months to advance the process and raised some $30,000 to ensure their support over the first year.

A furnished Cobourg apartment was waiting for them. The three children were settled into Burnham School, and English-as-a-second-language lessons (and transportation to them) were arranged.

Lander is inclined to doubt the numbers of Syrian refugees sponsored that Ottawa claims, when he sees so little evidence of actual Syrian refugees and so much in the way of what he termed good will that is thwarted.

In June, a reporter from the Vancouver Sun asked if Lander could arrange an interview with the Cobourg family.

“They wanted their privacy,” Lander said of the family.

“They have relatives in Syria, and don't want to go public — it could influence their families at home.”

Meanwhile, Lander was surprised someone from Vancouver had to call Ontario to find a Syrian refugee.

“I said, 'If the government claims are true, that there's 1,300 Syrian refugees, you should have no trouble finding someone else.'

“He was not impressed.”

One would think that, if this little church can do it, anyone can. And Lander is aware of many sponsorship opportunities, but so few that are accepted.

“As I understand it, there were 78 applications from the United Church for Syrian refugees in 2014. We were the only one the government accepted,” Lander said.

He is at a loss why their application was successful and 77 were not.

“Other groups come to me and ask, 'How come it worked for you?' I have to say I don't know,” he said.

“You have all this good will, and it gets blocked.”

The horror of the situation is not confined to the Kurdi family, Lander added.

“It's the 71 people who suffocated in the truck. It's the 200 that died in the bottom of a boat from the gas fumes. Every other day, there's a story that makes you want to cry. It makes you feel so helpless.”

It's only been a matter of days since the family they sponsored moved to London, Lander added. They were motivated by having friends in the area, by hopes of more job opportunities and by the fact that there are five mosques there.

Still, he said, they appreciate what people in Cobourg did for them, and local supporters can be proud of ensuring they at least got a chance.

And Burnham School must come in for special mention for the welcome they provided the family's three children and their efforts to help them adjust to life in Canada.

It brings back to Lander his time as a minister in Manitoba, years ago, when churches and community supporters reached out to help what were known as the boat people fleeing Vietnam.

“Everybody felt they were doing something significant,” he recalled.

“Our responsibility here is coming to an end, and I think all our people feel really proud that they have done something. This family could be dead by now.”

At the time they left, the five of them were dodging sniper fire in their neighbourhood. An aunt who remains behind is all right for now, but she lives in one of very few remaining blocks that have not been destroyed.

“We feel proud that we have done something, but we still feel broken whenever we hear stories like this,” Lander said.