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Sponsoring refugees: Canadians reach out

They were prepared to risk everything. In the years following the Vietnam War, over one million refugees fled the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Those Vietnamese who took to the ocean in tiny overcrowded ships were dubbed the "boat people." The survivors sometimes languished for years in refugee camps. The luckier ones were taken in by countries like Canada.

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Toronto's Stephen Tomosvary is one of the many Canadians who wants to help the refugees. He explains to CBC Television that his own experiences as an immigrant from Hungary have inspired him to sponsor a refugee family. As a sponsor, he has pledged to support a family while it gets on its feet -- that means helping to provide food, clothing and shelter for up to one year.

The government decides that the number of boat people brought to Canada should be dependent on public support. In July 1979, it introduces a matching formula: the government will sponsor one refugee for each one sponsored privately. Churches, corporations or groups of five or more adult Canadian citizens are eligible to sponsor refugees directly.

The experiment is a roaring success. The goal is 42,000 refugees (21,000 privately-sponsored and 21,000 government-sponsored) over two years, on top of the government's own quota of 8,000. In a mere four months, private sponsorships have reached their goal.
From Mormons to Mennonites, church groups are essential to the success of the program. The Canadian Jewish Congress and the Catholic archdiocese of Toronto both announce campaigns to bring 1000 refugees to Canada.

For some people, the crisis hits close to home: Jewish people remember boatloads of their own refugees fleeing the Holocaust and being turned back from Canadian shores. Immigrants like the 56ers, who fled Russia's 1956 invasion of Hungary, want to repay their debt to society.
Organizations spring up around the country to help them do it; organizations like Toronto's Operation Lifeline, Calgary's Someone Cares, Montreal's Committee to Save the Boat People, and Saskatchewan's Open Door Society.
. Sponsoring a family cost private groups between $2,500 and $8,000, depending on the size of the family sponsored and how long it took them to get established. The general rule was $1200 per refugee.
. The money went to providing clothing, food and accommodation for a family for a maximum of one year. A government pamphlet assured sponsors that refugee families usually became self-supporting in 4 to 6 months.

. On June 24, 1979, York University philosophy professor Howard Adelman organized The Campaign to Save the Boat People in the federal riding of St. Paul's in Toronto. Its goal of saving 50 families was surpassed in nine days.
. In six days, there were 10 more groups like the one in St. Paul's. In nine days, 58. The Campaign to Save the Boat People became Operation Lifeline, an umbrella organization to help support the other Ontario groups.

. The desire to help crossed many boundaries. In Kitchener, Ont., Adelman was hugged by a man who said: "Would you believe it? Me, a Mennonite, hugging you, a Jew, over sponsoring a Buddhist."
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: July 9, 1979
Guest(s): Harvey Dyck, Tony Leung, Stephen Tomosvary
Host: Don McNeill
Reporter: Bill Boyd
Duration: 4:52

Last updated: June 20, 2014

Page consulted on June 20, 2014

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