Perth-Huron – The Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron (MAPH) held a press conference on Sept. 6 to raise awareness of refugee sponsorship in light of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan.
“The Canadian government offered support to Afghan refugees who worked for the Canadian government as drivers, as translators, as cooks, as cleaners,” said Gezahgn Wordofa, founder of MAPH. “How should the Multicultural Association respond? What is the duty of the Multicultural Association? What is the function of the Multicultural Association? Our main goal is to help provide housing, furniture, clothes and school materials.”
He said he is calling for volunteers, church groups and MAPH board members to respond to this situation.
MAPH is starting work with its newly-appointed settlement worker, Inas Hamid.
She is a former Coordinator for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“It’s kind of ironic that I met Wordofa in Moscow, while we’re working with Afghan refugees at the time (during) the first arrival of the Taliban,” said Inas. “It’s heartbreaking that we are working on the comeback of the Taliban – it’s heartbreaking that we are doing it again. It’s never-ending.”
Having said that, she encouraged people not to feel overwhelmed although the situation is dire and the need is high.
“We have everybody we need to support Afghans as much as we can,” said Inas. “We have the support of the Canadian government. They’re expediting, they are doing their best to bring in as many Afghans as needed and we are better capacitated to support. We have the thinkers. We have the compassionate. We have the generous. We have people who are raising awareness.”
Perhaps most importantly, they have people with firsthand knowledge of being refugees; both Wordofa and Inas were refugees.
“I was a refugee,” Inas said. “I feel I still belong to that world. I’ve never disconnected. We’re both still working with refugees. It’s part of our identity so we can, as the MAPH, we can fully support whoever can come forward and say – I can help in whatever capacity… We can support them with knowledge, teach them how to respond, how to raise awareness.”
Inas said there are many misconceptions about refugees.
“The government has offered a generous initiative to bring in those who are closely working with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and they… have a target of 20,000 Afghans who will arrive, those people are in dire need of help,” she said. “If we have people from the community that would like to sponsor Afghan refugees we have the best recipe for successful settlement because we have families here so they have already one foot in Canada so that’s the best thing we can get.”
The MAPH is hoping people will come forward to support the Afghan refugees and MAPH will offer the necessary support to residents of Huron, Perth or Wellington counties who wish to get involved in sponsoring refugees.
Wordofa mentioned that over 40 languages are spoken in Afghanistan but two main languages are Dari and Pashto, and MAPH volunteers can translate for Afghans.
He said Afghan refugees deal with anxiety and fear of the Taliban.
“They were tortured, back home they still control them, that’s why our main goal as volunteers is to support these Afghanis,” said Wordofa.
He spoke of the media images of planes with hundreds, or perhaps thousands of people holding on as they took off. People desperate to escape living under Taliban rule risking their lives.
“I’ve never seen that in my life, when I saw it, it made me cry,” said Wordofa. “Again, I want to ask my volunteers, board and friends how we can make it better?”
MAPH board member Stephen Landers said the services they are providing are essential to help get people settled.
“Mostly the Association provides counselling on getting jobs, it helps them get jobs, it goes to employers to find jobs for them – if there is a problem with the employer they help sort it out so they provide a lot of basic skills and assistance for people who come over,” he said.
Landers said he has heard newcomers sometimes don’t feel like they are welcome.
“I don’t think that’s because we’re a cold bunch but we’re sort of reluctant to jump in and say ‘hi, how are you doing.’ It would be nice if you see somebody you think is a refugee, speak to them,” he said. “They may not even understand what you are saying but they will appreciate the greeting I am sure.”
Tanis Vandermolen, a MAPH volunteer, works in libraries in Huron County and she says many helpful services already exist in local communities.
“Just be willing to help other people make those connections within the community,” she said. “All of those services are there to help anyone, any day so it doesn’t matter who comes through the door, we’ll provide the assistance needed.”
An issue Wordofa raised is that the refugees are coming from an area without COVID requirements.
“It’s another headache,” he said. “We try to buy tests and also if they are willing and when they are ready we get them the vaccine. We have more success… we don’t push them. It’s when they are ready.”
Asil Hamid, a MAPH representative for refugee sponsorship said the conversation should not only be about settlement in Canada but also getting refugees to come to Canada.
“I was in Turkey and Egypt,” she said. “I just came to Canada for three weeks and I saw what happened over there. Refugees are suffering a lot but there is no one here thinking about sponsoring them.”
She believes many Canadians are afraid of sponsoring refugees because of the responsibility, but she pointed out that people are losing their lives in refugee camps.
“Nobody is thinking about them,” said Asil. “Well I can’t say nobody but the majority are not thinking about that so I think the best way to help refugees is … to help them leave the transient countries like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan – people are dying there… so from my point of view because I was working with refugees and I helped lots of refugees with their sponsorship to come to Canada, I think we need to do more to help them.”
Asil said that refugees who left their country have problems because Immigration Canada put a restriction on them making it harder to get refugee recognition.
“I think we should do something to make an exemption to that because their situation is so hard right now,” she said. “It’s too much for them and if they want to get the refugee recognition it will take forever, years to get it, so I think it’s better to work on this.”
Asil said there are three ways to sponsor refugees in Canada. There are over 100 larger umbrella organizations that help with refugee sponsorship, smaller community groups such as churches can do it or private sponsorship by a group of at least five family members or friends can decide to bring in refugees.
“Of course you will have to apply – you have to have the experience that you are qualified to bring in refugees,” she said. “You will have to commit to providing the family financial needs and also to provide the family services after arrival.”
Asil said there is government support because Canada is encouraging private sponsors to work closely with organizations.
“You are never alone but there are some guidelines and steps to do it,” she said. “The refugees need to be recognized by the United Nations definition of what a refugee is or by the local authorities of the countries where they are living. It’s not a short process but for Afghan families it’s expedited. It’s not a piece of cake… but it’s also not that complicated.”
Asil described it as a life-changing experience for both sides.
“There are misconceptions that all refugees are poor or all refugees are not educated,” she said. “It’s not true. I have been working with a family here and they have two young graduates of medical school and they are really bright… There are obstacles of having them recognized (as refugees) as they are in the neighbour countries. That is a huge obstacle.”
She said it is recognized that they will boost the economy in one way or another but she does not believe that only qualified people deserve to come to Canada.
“Every child has the right to have a bright future,” said Asil. “Every woman has the right to live in a country where freedom and the rights of women are respected. Everybody has the right to have a decent life.”
Asil noted that fears about cultural differences could deter sponsorship.
“There are lots of misconceptions,” said Asil. “I think we hold ourselves (back) from this just because we don’t want to offend, which is also very sweet. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to step on someone’s toes. That’s why sometimes we avoid (sponsorship) for the best reasons in the world. Of course, we’re Canadian, we don’t want to offend.”
She suggested talking to people from different cultures to see what they are really like.
“It is very important to bring in refugees… there are like 51 million people who are displaced, seven million of whom are refugees and oh my goodness, that’s too much,” said Asil. “It’s like dipping your finger in the ocean and coming up with one drop but I think we can do it.”
Inas said that it’s a pleasure for her to continue to help refugees.
“The feeling I get when the refugees arrive in Canada and you can see them when they meet me at the airport they start crying, hugging me, (telling) me that I saved their life,” she said. “One of the refugee families, they have a kid who cried and hugged me very, very tight. Then they said ‘thanks to you to make me see the aeroplane and reach the safe place.’ This is like – nobody can explain it.”
Inas believes Canadians are privileged because of private sponsorship.
“It’s very compassionate,” she said. “It’s a fellow human responsibility and you do feel for them. If it’s one of us then it’s all of us. If something happens in Afghanistan. If something happens in Iraq, in my country, then it’s everywhere because you don’t accept what’s going on in Afghanistan, to Afghans in general or women in specific. It’s horrendous. It’s awful. So we can do it. We do have this privilege. Why don’t we use it? Refugee sponsorship, private sponsorship, five people, five individuals… That’s huge and it’s very noble and it’s definitely life-changing. I came as a refugee and I’m still indebted to the visa officer who interviewed me. I’m still in touch with him… the affirmation that his choice to bring me to safety was a good choice, was the right choice… I feel like I owe him. See how far I have come. I have four degrees now. I speak four languages. I started paying back. I work with so many refugees.”
Wordofa said he appreciates his life in Canada.
“It doesn’t matter how much I pay in taxes – look at our roads, look at our hospitals… we have a lot that should be appreciated,” he said. “We are lucky. We are breathing good air… look at how many people
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner