Religion plays a major role in the lives of many refugees, making it an important consideration for religious-based aid groups sponsoring those of other faiths.
Paul Bramadat from the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, made this point while leading the forum on “Refugees and Religion: Push, Pull and the Politics of Crisis” at the 18th National Metropolis Conference in Toronto earlier this month.
“We know that Anglican United Church [of Canada] and Catholic church groups are heavily responsible for lots of immigrant and refugee settlement activities in the last many decades,” Bramadat said.
Suzanne Rumsey of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, representing the Anglican Church of Canada, said, “In our ways of working, we are an Anglican way of sponsoring the needs of the world, not the needs of Anglicans of the world.”
“Our mandate is to respond to refugees based on need, not on faith or religion,” she added.
An integral part of faith groups
One of the founding members of Lifeline Syria, Naomi Alboim, a professor at Queen’s University, applauded the private sponsorship approach by various faith communities.
“The Syrian refugee movement has really revitalized the whole sponsorship movement.”
“The Syrian refugee movement has really revitalized the whole sponsorship movement, I hope forever,” she said.
Alboim found refuge in Canada with her parents – her mother a Jewish survivor of the Second World War.
Thinking back to 1979 when private sponsorship kicked off in Canada, Alboim said that a number of ethno-specific and religious-specific groups were set up particularly to sponsor refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Many Jewish groups came forward to sponsor refugees from Indochina.
Sharing her experience of approaching Jewish faith groups to sponsor Syrians, Alboim said that it was a “brave” thing to do as there had been discussions in the Jewish community about whether it would be appropriate to sponsor Muslims or not.
She applauds the immediate cooperation from the Jewish community, and also her particular synagogue, and said that they are sponsoring refugees not as human beings only, but also as Jewish people.
“It’s really an opportunity for us as a community to put our values into practice, which is repairing the world as an integral part of our faith.”
There are 35 groups among Canada’s Jewish community working together to sponsor Syrian refugees.
Before approaching the Toronto Board of Rabbis, Alboim said she wanted to tackle concerns about Muslim refugees being sponsored by Jewish groups.
“I [didn’t] want to reach out to my community and get rebuffed,” she said. “Now a family of five has arrived and another is under process.”
Over-simplifying identities of refugees
Meanwhile, some secular groups have also joined sponsorship efforts, including the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria.
The group found that some are not comfortable sponsoring refugees through faith-based organizations.
“There is this assumption that they are all the same.”
“We felt that there was some space for people who wanted to go through a different route,” said Sabine Lehr, representing the group at the forum.
Lehr spoke about the challenge of over-simplifying the identity of incoming refugees as Muslims.
“There is this assumption that they are all the same, but they all have tribal affiliation. They have potentially different political perspectives, particularly complex, given the nature of conflicts they are facing.”
While talking about a large mosque in Victoria, she said that it’s an assumption that all refugees coming in as Muslims will attend the mosque, whether or not they come from a different faction.
Lehr expresses her concern that this dimension is often brushed aside.
“We’ll see where this all leads in the coming months,” she added.
Religion need not be a private matter
There are other challenges related to religious issues that merit consideration, added Lehr.
[T]he challenge he sees is if a refugee of Muslim faith gets involved in crime, Canadians will immediately grow frightened …
In her experience, some people were concerned about certain expressions of culture or religion – in particular the wearing of niqab.
“I did get a question in one of my conversations with a potential sponsor,” she recalled. “It was couched in terms of, ‘You know I really have a problem with the niqab because we have a problem if we can’t see somebody’s face.’ It wasn’t really couched in religious terms; it was couched in the terms that I have a problem in interacting with a person face-to-face.”
Bramadat said despite these issues, religion is not a barrier to sponsoring refugees in Canada, the way it is in Europe.
However, the challenge he sees is if a refugee of Muslim faith gets involved in crime, Canadians will immediately grow frightened, as a result of Islamophobia.
“My fear is that as soon as somebody does some bad things, what people see is a Muslim rather than see it’s a guy who made a wrong choice and who is in crisis.”
Bramadat suggested that the solution is to discuss religion openly.
“I think we have to develop the capacity and bravery to have difficult conversations and should not treat religion as a private matter.”
Editor’s Note: This report has been updated from a previous version. Alboim was not a survivor of the Second World War, her mother was; as well in 1979, not 1978, when private sponsorship kicked off the focus was on groups from Indochina, not of Jewish faith.