A group trying to sponsor a Syrian refugee family say they spent over a year, and thousands of dollars, waiting for their family to arrive while getting no answers from the much-praised government program that was supposed to streamline the process.
When the Toronto group's application to sponsor the refugees had been stalled for nearly a year, they discovered the official sponsorship program had ended and government staffing in charge of processing the applications was slashed, leaving the sponsors and the family in limbo until they were finally connected last month.
The sponsorship group say they were paying $1,500 a month for an empty apartment and faced other hefty financial and legal obligations with no word on when — or even if — the family would make it to Canada.
"For me, it's the total lack of answers … a communications black hole," sponsorship group member Barbara Falk said when Go Public first spoke with her in December 2016.
The sponsorship members call their group Beyt al-Amal, which is Arabic for the House of Hope.
"We had contacted nine different offices of members of Parliament, two in particular were tireless in their efforts. We've written letters to the minister. We had done some local media through the Toronto area specifically," Falk said.
"But we were just getting no information. I had sent emails and letters directly to the visa post in Beirut. Never got an answer."
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Soon after Canada kicked off its campaign to bring Syrian refugees into the country in late 2015, everything seemed to be coming together for the Toronto-based sponsors.
They had a dedicated group of about 30 people committed to a refugee settlement plan, were matched with a Syrian family and had raised more than $60,000. They were encouraged by the commitment from the newly elected Liberals to bring 25,000 government-assisted refugees to Canada in a few months.
Within months, the Syrian family, which had fled to Lebanon, were contacted by Canadian officials to start the screening process. Weeks after that, they were told to be ready to travel within days.
And then there was no word from Canadian authorities for almost a year.
The family asked that we not name them for fear of repercussions for relatives still in Syria.
'We don't know if Canada wants us'
By the end of February 2016, the Canadian government met its quota of resettling 25,000 Syrians refugees under any program.
But by that time, the Syrian family had not made it onto the government-chartered planes. Meanwhile, the family's residence permits in Lebanon expired, leaving them at risk of being deported.
The group said their attempts to find out more from Canadian officials failed.
"I can't even imagine what it's like for this family living in limbo. At one point one of the children said to his father, 'We don't know if Canada wants us.' How do you answer that kid?" Falk said.
'Routine security checks'
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told Go Public the application was held up over "routine security checks" for the father and blames what it calls "security partners" for the delay.
"All refugees undergo a criminal and security check to make sure that they are admissible to Canada, that they have not committed serious crimes in the past and that they are not a security risk to Canada before they are accepted for resettlement to Canada," Lindsay Wemp, who is with immigration media relations, wrote in an email.
"Security checks are conducted for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada by our security partners, and any delays that they may incur in providing input is something over which we have no control. For this reason, processing times are case by case and sometimes delays may occur."
Weeks after Go Public started asking questions, things started moving again.
The Syrian family of seven finally touched down at Toronto Pearson International Airport late last month.
The co-ordinator of Canada for Refugees, John Sewell, had heard from other private sponsorship groups with the same issues — long delays and no explanation.
He said taking a year to do one security check is unreasonable.
"If it's going to be a couple weeks, it'll be a couple of weeks. But a year? Come on," Sewell said.
He believes the issue isn't security checks — but staffing.
At one point, Canada had about 500 officials working abroad on the Syrian resettlement initiative. Now, "more than 70 staff" are working on claims from the Middle East, according to the Immigration Department.
"What happened is the government said it wanted to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees — and they did it through an extraordinary processing system where they brought in lots of staff. But then after that, it all collapsed," Sewell said.
As of April 11, almost 180 sponsorship groups have been waiting for more than a year for Syrian refugees to arrive, the Immigration Department said.
- 94 of those groups have refugees approved and are now waiting for them to arrive in Canada.
- 84 groups have refugees still being processed, needing medical and security screening.
- About 1,645 privately sponsored refugees are still waiting to arrive.
- In total, Canada received private sponsorship applications for about 12,400 individual Syrians by the March 2016 deadline
With the family finally here, the sponsors say they can do what they signed up for all those months ago helping the family settle in their home.
"I want them to know that this is Canada and they are welcome," Falk said.
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