North Grenville hosted representatives from all over the world at the Kemptville Campus on Thursday as part of the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR). The ATCR, organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), happens every year in Geneva. According to the UNHCR website,“It provides an opportunity to address a wide range of policy and procedural matters, including advocacy, capacity building and operational support”.
As part of this year’s consultations, Canada hosted representatives from all over the world in Ottawa, as a working group preparing for the ATCR in June. “Each year, a different country chairs the ATCR and hosts an ATCR working group meeting in their own country over the winter,” said Director of Protection Policy for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Chris Gregory, who was part of organizing the working group in Ottawa.
The meeting organized several site visits designed to inform the international guests about issues that relate to resettlement worldwide. On Thursday afternoon, representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Belgium, European Union, France, Netherlands, Germany, Geneva and Mexico came out to Kemptville to learn about the realities of resettling refugees in rural areas.
The local refugee sponsorship group, Open Arms, played host to the multi-national group and explained how they came together and were successful in bringing Iranian refugee, Massih Khiery, to the area at the end of last year. Co-Chair of Open Arms, Katie Nolan, led the discussion, with many other members of the group chiming in to share their experience working with various organizations in Canada to sponsor a refugee and, ultimately, helping resettle them in a rural area. Two women from Refugees for Brockville were also at the meeting to share their experience bringing over 10 refugee families to the Brockville area.
The international guests were interested in learning why local residents were motivated to start a refugee sponsorship group, what the process is like in Canada, and what challenges they faced resettling refugees in rural Ontario.
Katie Nolan explained that, at the beginning, she felt that it was a good way to bring friends and family together and work towards a common goal. As someone who works in economic development, she knows the value of welcoming newcomers into a community, especially in rural areas. She said her decision to spearhead the initiative was bolstered by learning about The Refugee Hub, which helps sponsorship groups support refugees with the financial portion that is not paid for by the federal government through the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program. They also found an extremely helpful partner in the Mennonite Central Committee Canada, who acted as their sponsorship agreement holder and were very helpful in guiding them through the process. “We have had an extremely positive experience because of the support along the way,” Katie said.
Both Open Arms and the women from Brockville said that finding housing, transportation, and jobs was a challenge in a small community. That being said, the benefit of having the support of a sponsorship group is that there are many hands to help out. In a small town, word of mouth travels fast, and the more people who are looking for employment and accommodation for the sponsor, the more likely something appropriate will be found. Katie did mention that the cost of housing is a challenge, and the process of trying to find Massih a place to live highlighted what a shortage there is in affordable accommodations in this area. “It’s the one thing that would block me from doing it again,” she said.
The conversation was bolstered by the first-hand experience of Massih, who was able to tell the guests from other countries what the process has been like for him. He describes the UN procedure for resettling refugees as chaotic and very slow. “I was cherry picked,” he said. “There are millions looking for resettlement.” Massih said that he really likes the fact that he was placed in a rural area. He believes the care he has received from the community surpasses what he would have found in a big city. “In a big city, you are more alone,” he said, adding that he often stops and talks to people walking in town. “If I ask them questions, they answer. Everybody is warm.”
He spoke about the hundreds of people he met in the Thai jail where he lived for over two years who are in desperate need of help. “I hope some people here find a way to make sponsorship easier, or at least more possible,” he said.
Katie said that, after feeling powerless for so many years, the whole process has been extremely gratifying. “It has strengthened our community,” she said. “It benefits the sponsors, the community that welcomes them, and the refugee.”
Chris thanked Open Arms for hosting them and sharing their experience. “There is nothing unique to Canada about the values expressed today,” he told their international guests. “The same people exist in your towns as well.”