Victoria Esses is palpably excited about it. In fact, she’s thrilled.
In a month or two, the first Syrian refugee family – a family with six children under 7 years old – will be coming to London, thanks to the Refugee Sponsorship Fund at Western.
The fund, established last fall by the Faculty of Social Science, in partnership with the London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, aimed to raise $30,000 to provide for a G5 Private Sponsorship Application for a Syrian refugee family of five. If more than the target amount was raised, more refugee families could be sponsored.
Money and support poured in quickly and abundantly from Western staff, faculty and students, Esses said, and a non-government organization (NGO) in Turkey helped identify a family for sponsorship. A former Western graduate student, Secil Ertorer, who studied Sociology and was part of the collaborative program in Migration and Ethnic Relations (2012), connected Western with this NGO, she explained.
On Friday, the family was approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and will be coming to London soon, Esses said.
“We are looking forward to welcoming them and helping them to settle here,” she continued.
The fund has a group that will provide support for the first year, at the least, helping the family arrange housing, schooling, documentation, language assistance and general settlement. London has been very supportive as a community, she added, and people all over are stepping forward to help out. A local dentist has gathered a group to do dental work pro bono for refugees once they come; White Oaks Public School will assist with educational assessments; community and resource centres are offering wide support.
“Things are pretty much in place. When the family arrives, we are ready for them,” Esses said.
Special thanks, she continued, is owed to Wennie Lee, a lawyer and Western alumna, who made sure paperwork was in order on this side of the ocean. She gave “fantastic advice” and is, without a doubt, the reason things went so smoothly and the application was approved within two weeks, Esses stressed.
She also credited the fund-raising of the Faculty of Education. “They have raised a large amount of money and we are very grateful for their support,” Esses continued.
What’s more, Western is forging the way for other universities when it comes to refugee sponsorship and support.
“Other universities are now asking us for advice on how we put this program together. The University of Windsor and Université du Québec à Montréal have asked how to mobilize and how to get the system up. We’re kind of forging the way for others in terms of demonstrating this can be done, and this is something universities can get involved in,” Esses said.
“My main goal is to keep fundraising so we get as many families as we can here. We’re trying now to raise funds for a second family – we have a group together of willing sponsors who have already started the paperwork. We’ve raised about $21,000 towards the second family,” she said.
“People at Western have been super generous – an amazing amount of money donated, but also the offers we had for housing, and everything else.”
Meanwhile, another group on campus is working to help LGBTQ refugees coming from Syria and Iraq.
“We have a group called Lesbians and Gays Support Refugees and we specifically have been working with the Metropolitan Community Church in London – the gay church – to sponsor LGBTQ refugees and their families, if they have them,” said Wendy Pearson, a professor and undergraduate chair of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.
The group has raised $28,000 in an attempt to sponsor a specific refugee family who cannot be identified as they may still encounter homophobic reactions within their own community here. That’s been one of the barriers in identifying potential families or individuals to sponsor, Pearson noted, but the group is working with others on the ground to help those who might identify as LGBTQ.
“There are LGBTQ refugees around the world. The government recognizes something like 75 countries as being oppressive to LGBTQ people and we are thinking of not just brining people from Syria, but from elsewhere, too,” she said.
“People within that community are much more at risk because they’re also at risk within their refugee communities – but that’s also true for single women, and other people, too. There are a lot of people who are at risk – I think it’s just a matter of trying to help who we can. We had a good initial response, and we will keep fundraising.”
For more information on how to help LGBTQ refugees, visit the group’s blog, lgsr1.blogspot.ca/.