Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A GALA FOR A REFUGEE

(Posted in the Parkdale United Church newsletter "The Messenger")
“There are not good refugees or bad refugees, just people in need.”
By Sergio Granillo

It was the night of April 29, in the premises of the Lawrence Park Community Church of Toronto. In a sober environment, refined and tasteful meals were served: Pasta cooked on the spot, beef kabob dipped in blue cheese, roast beef, sushi, breaded shrimp, surimi salad and wine; a chocolate fountain to dip fruit and marshmallows, pastries and cakes for dessert. There was some entertainment too, live music, a radio and TV personality hosted the night and did some interviews with the organizers; a silent auction took place at the end.

All of that was the Gala, the most important event in the year to raise funds by the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), an ecumenical organization dedicated to facilitate the private sponsorship of refugees. For over 25 years, AURA has sponsored refugees from more than 25 countries.

Mary Ito, television and radio personality -currently hosts Fresh Air, CBC Radio One’s regional weekend program in Ontario- hosted the event.

In the first place, the attendees watched a video about Norman Valdez, produced by Jason Hunter. Norman is a refugee from Peru, arrived in Canada 13 years ago. He came with his parents, brother and sister. His father was a journalist in Peru; he was imprisoned for three years because of his writings. AURA helped the family to settle down in Canada.

Presently, Norman has his own computer business and he is a professor at York University. In the video, he told his story and explained how English was one of the biggest barriers when his family arrived in Canada. “It makes it harder to get a job,” he said. In the end, the family found his place in the new country; Norman’s father runs a Spanish language newspaper in Toronto and his mother recently won a community service award.

Attendees to the Gala enjoyed an amusing musical performance by Ajit and Anoop Isac, father and son from Parkdale United Church; both born in India and building their own success story in Canada.

During one of the interviews, Jim Acheson, Chair of Don Valley Refugee Resettlers, explained how they have been sponsoring refugee individuals and families since the Vietnamese boat crisis in the late seventies. Jim has been a long time board member with AURA and attends Northminster United Church.

How does AURA operate? Jim explained: They select an individual or a family who applied for refugee to the Canadian government, before landing in Canada. They take care of the paperwork, pick them up at the airport and, step by step, help them to settle down in the community. They help to get English courses for adults and to find a spot in public schools for their children. Orientation to get official documents, such as SIN, OHIP and Child Tax Benefit is provided as well. “It is just like an adoption,” he said.

The support provided by AURA goes beyond the complex paperwork and covering their economic needs, it is introducing people form remote places to a modern life style. Some of the refugees had never seen a TV or an electric stove; others have no idea of what a bank is.

How expensive this is? An average size family –father, mother and 2 children- costs around 25,000 dollars, a single individual is cheaper, but they have received families with 9 members; then the expenses jump up to 40,000 dollars. That is on a yearly basis.

AURA gets its financial support through fundraising events. People that are touched by stories like Norman’s cooperate and attend events as this Gala –the most important event in the year-. The idea is to support refugees from places in struggle or severe poverty problems; countries like Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq and Colombia.

Sometimes the Canadian government contacts AURA to take care of a refugee. There is an extensive list of people all over the world who have been waiting for several years to come to Canada.

During the event, the audience learned how Ian McBride, Executive Director of AURA, got involved in such a noble quest. He was born in the rural Canada, and from a young age he saw how his father –a farmer- extended a helping hand to the Latvian families that came to settle down in the community.

As a youngster, Ian decided to take a hitch-hike travel around the world. He saw at first hand the painful poverty of India and other countries. The experience made him to realize how fortunate Canadians are. ‘We must give back’, he thought. Helping out refugees has been the way for him to do it.

A leading voice is the key to connect those who are willing to help with the many others who require care and assistance, but some people don’t have the time or don’t know how. The staff and volunteers of AURA are making it happen. There is no standard number of refugees assisted per year, Ian explains. In a single year they have received 75 persons form 7 or 8 families.

AURA does not discriminate because of religious beliefs. “We don’t look for Christian refugees; we look for people in need.” There is much to learn about helping refugees, by knowing their stories of struggle and believing in a better future... “Human condition is enormously resilient; no matter what, people go forward with their lives. Stories of refugees are stories of determination.”

In a personal conversation with Ian MacBride, after the event, he explained how the announced changes to the Canadian Refugee System would affect their work. “Most of the new regulations will be for inland claims. The difficulty with this process is that some of the ideas are very good, but some of the details are foggy and not well thought through, and I think it will be difficult to enact all the changes that they want to make.”

In terms of the work that AURA does with overseas people is offering more spaces and more support, because they want to see the overseas process enhanced as opposed to inland processing. In regards of the refugee claims coming from Middle East, Ian said that the policies for that region seem to focus on bringing women, handicaps and some families without a male head.

What is the typical kind of refugee that AURA takes? Individuals, nuclear families, single parent families; anything from one person to families of 12. “We don’t have a typical. We take people who are challenged by who they are,” he said.

Speaking about the guidelines about refugees in general, Ian said: “I don’t want to come to a position where there are good refugees and bad refugees; there are refugees or there are not, is not about good and bad.”