In small Nova Scotia town, locals push ahead with effort to help Syrian refugees

HUBBARDS, N.S. — Just days after the image of a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach flashed around the globe, about 60 people packed a church hall in Hubbards, N.S., determined to find a way to respond to the refugee crisis his death came to symbolize.

A month later, the resulting refugee support group is flourishing, but there’s also a growing realization that private sponsorship is far from simple.

Susy MacGillivray, 47, a mother of two young children who joined the refugee support group, contrasts current efforts to help Syrians with her childhood memory of her parent’s church bringing Vietnamese boat people to Canada in 1980.

“People got it together. We filled a kitchen. We had beds and there was a family there and we had a party,” she recalled.

A private sponsor today faces fundraising challenges, multiple committees and efforts to dispel fears of terrorism, say members of the Bay Refugee Project.

“We are the little engine that will,” says Sheelagh Priestly, 53, who also joined after the first meeting. “It’s miraculous to see in the short 3 1/2 weeks how far we’ve come.”

Already, about 25 people are meeting regularly for hours at restaurants and donated space, while 100 people have indicated interest on a Facebook page. The group has a fundraising committee, an executive committee and a logistics committee to handle paperwork.

Stephen Sharam, 38, heads up the communications committee and has had to appoint a volunteer just to answer questions from nearby communities that want information.

“There are so many people who want to help,” he says.

For the Hubbards group the first step was to find a sponsorship agreement holder — an agency that has worked with Ottawa to bring in refugees in the past — to partner with. They chose the Roman Catholic diocese, one of eight such groups available in the province.

Sharam says church experts will initially assist a team of five people in the town working through applications to be sent to Citizenship and Immigration in Winnipeg to apply to receive a refugee under the program.

Meanwhile, MacGillivray, Priestley and other volunteers are busy raising the $27,000 Ottawa requires them to provide to fund the first family of four for a year.

Space for a fundraising dinner has already been donated for a night of food and music at the Shore Club in Hubbards at the end of the month.

MacGillivray says she’s hoping to raise between $5,000 and $10,000 from that event. Another committee member is working out how to get charitable status. There’s also plans for an art auction.

She says when they’ve reached the 50-per-cent point for the funds the group needs, they can send in the application for private sponsorship.

The group is also exploring another option, known as Blended Visa Office Referred refugees, where a refugee is identified by a visa office overseas and half the costs are paid for by Ottawa. MacGillivray says that could mean the project could bring in two refugee families with the same amount of cash.  

Some committee members say they are happy to contribute but Ottawa’s approach is too cumbersome and reliant on private donors.

“I’m glad we’re helping … but I feel like it’s almost nothing,” Jackie Leppard said as a recent meeting of the group began. 

“We should be sending teams over there and we should be bringing people over by the tens of thousands.”

Meanwhile, Priestley says one of the challenges the group faces is social media comments whipping up fear terrorists will somehow slip through the refugee system.

“We’ll have to communicate that there shouldn’t be fear about helping. It’s sad really. Aren’t all of us friends and brethren of one another?” she says.

 

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press