Toronto

103 people, 33 families, 13 countries. Toronto church helps refugees find 'a new place to land'

For 40 years, the Islington United Church in Etobicoke has been helping refugees from around the world find a new home in Canada. Rev. Maya Landell says the program offered by the church goes beyond helping the families with their physical needs.

Since the late 1970s, private sponsors have welcomed more than 327,000 refugees to Canada

Ken Luong and his wife Susanna Luong, from Vietnam, arrived in Canada in 1980 with their two children. They were sponsored by Islington United Church under Canada’s Private Sponsorship Program. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Simon Luong and Nam Luong were 16 and 14 when they first arrived in Canada 40 years ago.

The brothers — along their parents and three other siblings from Vietnam — were members of the first family to be sponsored by the Etobicoke-based Islington United Church under Canada's Private Sponsorship Program.

"I remember the first day I arrived in Canada, it was snow, and we never think it's cold. We just run out and taste the snow and play in the snow without the jacket. It was so exciting," Nam Luong told CBC News on Sunday at a special church service to mark the anniversary of the program.

"We found a nice place to live. The Islington United Church is doing a very good job. They support us from the small thing to the big thing."

Simon Luong said they are forever grateful to the church for embarking on the initiative and sponsoring people who are in need.

"It's very warm and it's a family," he said. "Thank you very much to the Islington United Church and the Committee for Refugees [for giving] us a very good life and helping a lot of those families."

Simon Luong (right) and Nam Luong were 16 and 14 when they arrived in Canada 40 years ago as refugees. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Private sponsors have welcomed more than 327,000 refugees since the start of Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in the late 1970s. The program is one of the oldest and best known resettlement programs in the world.

Up until 2016, Canada was the only country in the world with such a program.

Through the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, sponsorship programs have grown significantly with Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany now developing or operating new community sponsorship programs for refugees.

Today, Canadians are celebrated for their immense contributions and dedication to provide a safe haven for vulnerable refugees around the world.

Ken Luong and his wife Susanna Luong, also from Vietnam, arrived in Canada in 1980 with their two children. They too were sponsored by Islington United Church.

"The life [was] very poor because at the time it was the war of Vietnam," Ken Luong told CBC News.

"The economy was really poor . . . so we were thinking about how to find a new life."

After 40 years, Ken and Susanna say they now have a big family of 13. The kids have grown up, completed high school and university and now have jobs and their own family, the proud parents say.

Laurie-Beth Page is a founding member of the Islington United Church refugee committee. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Laurie-Beth Page, a member of the church's refugee committee, says Islington United Church continues to help refugee families, with new groups arriving almost every year.

"We had a total of 103 people that we have sponsored in 33 groupings [from] 13 different countries represented in the course of the time," Page told CBC News.

"It's very special. I think it's like being a part of giving them a chance for a new life, and we've tried out best," says Page as she fought to hold back tears.

Page says when she sees what families helped by the church have accomplished over the 40 years, it gives her "a wonderful feeling," adding that the second generation families "are fantastic."

Rev. Maya Landell says the program offered by Islington United Church goes beyond helping refugee families with their physical needs. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Rev. Maya Landell says the program offered by the church goes beyond helping the families with just their physical needs.

"Every time a family is welcomed I'm surprised by how ready people are just to engage because there's such depth of trauma," Landell told CBC News.

"I think there's a tenderness to the trauma and to the story to just help people to be present now and that's the first step of healing. You can see in the flourishing that people are doing when they are here, that's healing too — finding a new place to land.

It's been humbling," Landell added.

With files from Kelda Yuen