A Toronto group faces the difficult decision of whether to take the federal government's offer to some Canadian sponsors waiting for Syrian refugees, and swap out delayed families with others who are "travel ready."

The Tri-Church Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Committee has been working for over a year to bring a Syrian family of four to Toronto from Jordan.

But last week, the committee received news that the family they had been matched with may never make it to Canada. and they can ask for a "replacement" refugee family instead.

"It's genuinely heart-wrenching for many of the people," said Wes Denyer, minister of the Rosedale Presbyterian church, the lead church in the committee. "People feel attachment and loyalty to this family that we've been expecting for eight or nine months."

Members of committee

Kirk and Claire Dunn, Sheila Rennie and Mark McElwain are among the members of the Tri-Church Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Committee. They thought the family they had been matched with would arrive last winter. (Submitted by Wes Denyer)

Over the past year, the group has been working to lay the groundwork for the family's arrival, communicating with them in Jordan and their relatives in Toronto, collecting furniture and housewares, and even buying toys for the family's two young children.

"What's going to be told to them? Are they going to be told that this group that they've been in touch with has dropped them in favour of another family?" asked Denyer.  

Bad choice to put on people, group says

A statement by the refugee advocacy group Canada4Refugees called Ottawa's offer "discouraging."

"It indicates the unwillingness of the government to take the action needed to ensure that families are processed quickly."

Group spokesman Doug Earl said it was a bad choice to put on people, "especially considering we should be finding a way to bring all of these people in."

"What are you supposed to do? Consign a family to long-term limbo on the refugee list?"

The government's replacement offer only applies to families on the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) list — for which the government and private sponsors split the costs.

About 140 BVOR Syrians have been delayed since March, including the family that the Tri-Church committee is awaiting. 

The government says delayed BVOR families who are replaced by other families will be able to enter the country as government-assisted refugees once they are approved.

But Earl said refugees who come in as government-assisted refugees are often less successful at integrating because they lack support.

"They don't have a committed community group behind them to help them," he said.

'We need to make the decision to let go'

The Tri-Church committee said it has spent the last year in the dark about what was happening to the family they considered "theirs."

"[Our contacts were] saying to us that there are medical and security checks that are outstanding, but that those things should be handled soon."

That was all they heard until last week, when they received word from the government that they could cancel their previous sponsorship and be matched with a replacement.

Denyer said that after difficult discussion, the committee is leaning toward accepting the offer.  

"There's another family there that's waiting and hoping to come to Canada and if we can help them in the immediate future ... then we need to make the decision to let go of the other family."