Apartment ready for Syrian refugee family since February still unused

Two church groups in Fredericton, who prepared a home for a Syrian refugee family that never came to Canada, are about to give up the apartment they rented mid-February in response to Ottawa's urgent call for help.

Church groups in Fredericton frustrated all their work has come to nothing

Mike Ramey walks through the empty apartment his group found and furnished back in February for a Syrian family, which has still not made it to Canada. (CBC)

Two church groups in Fredericton, who lovingly prepared a home for a Syrian refugee family that never came to Canada, are about to give up the apartment they rented mid-February in response to Ottawa's urgent call for help.

"It's been frustrating," said Mike Ramey, speaking for a private sponsorship group that draws on volunteers from St. Theresa's Catholic Parish and St. John the Evangelist.

"You have a large group of people at two different churches that initially threw themselves into this with a lot of energy and vigour," he said, as he guided a CBC TV camera through fully furnished rooms, decorated with care for the Syrian parents, their three young girls and two young boys.

Ramey said his group was quick to respond to the escalating Syrian migrant crisis.

By November, the congregations were raising the necessary funds.

Ramey's group has not received any updates from Ottawa about the status of the Syrian family they expected. (CBC)
Two months later, they were cleaning an apartment and arranging all the comforts a young family could need.

No updates since

While Ramey's group was provided with the names, ages and genders of the members of their Syrian family, there were no ensuing updates from any federal agencies and no words of encouragement.

It's the kind of treatment that has outraged John Sewell, the former mayor of Toronto who has designated himself a spokesperson for what he estimates could be thousands of Canadian sponsors hanging in limbo.

"This is being cruel to people, I think," said Sewell on the CBC's Power and Politics on March 30. "Both raising the expectations of refugees and raising the expectations of Canadians who were there to help them. And all that good will is being turned quite bitter, I think."

CBC News asked New Brunswick's Department of Post Secondary Education, Training and Labour if the federal government had advised Minister Francine Landry or anyone else in the provincial government about any developments to pass on to citizen groups.

The church groups raised enough money to furnish the apartment for a family of seven, with three young girls and two young boys. (CBC)
The response was no. CBC also asked if the department was keeping track of private sponsors in the province. That question went unanswered.

More staff for Middle East

Last week, CBC News reported that Ottawa was dispatching 40 additional staff to Canadian visa offices in the Middle East to expedite and finalize applications for privately sponsored refugees.

It's not clear how that compares to regular staffing levels or staffing during the intensive resettlement period that enabled the federal government to reach its target of 25,000 Syrian arrivals by February 29th.

"Because they were working very fast, they didn't know which cases would go forward," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, describing that time. "So they had more cases in process than they needed in the end to meet that deadline.

"And so at the end of February, they closed up a lot of their temporary operations," said Dench whose contacts in immigration said officers had burned out.

While the Council welcomes news that Ottawa is once again deploying more resources to refugees, it also issued the caution that moving resources toward the Syrian crisis would likely mean fewer resources available to eliminate backlogs in Africa, where refugees can languish for years.

Refugee families for Sackville

On that front, there was a glimmer of some good news in Sackville this week.

Our group shares in their frustration.- Rev. Jeff Murray, Sackville

Months after raising $120,000, the Sackville Refugee Response Coalition (SRRC) says it's now been paired with a Congolese family of four and a Syrian family of three.

The group hopes that means someone will soon occupy one of three furnished apartments that have been at the ready, including two rented on March 1 and one rented April 1.

Rev. Jeff Murray, the interim chair of the SRRC, said he empathized with Ramey and his fellow volunteers.

"The cases being circulated are very few," said Murray, whose group, like Ramey's, operates under the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program, where refugees are prescreened by the United Nations Refugee Agency and are supposed to be travel-ready and able to arrive in Canada within one to four months.

"Our group shares in their frustration. And we're still waiting for another case," he said. "They have thrown their hearts into this and that's commendable." 

Murray encouraged the Fredericton group to hang on and lobby their MP and write letters to Ottawa as the SRRC has done.

He said Sackville's refugee families could be showing up as early as June but there's no guarantee.