Back to Top

Dena Nicolai: The Gift of Talking With an Elected Official

Dena Nicolai, chaplain and refugee support mobilizer with the Christian Reformed Churches of British Columbia, shares the simple starting place for much of her engagement with people who have been refugees: joining them for a cup of coffee and saying “tell me how you’re doing.” Dena and Chris also talk about the ministry of sharing in lament, the importance of advocating ‘with’ and rather than ‘for’, and how the advocacy of faith communities and sponsors alongside newcomers changed government policy to provide a more “full” welcome for refugees in Canada.

The following is a transcript of Season 4 Episode 4 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well Hello friends and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. I'm your host Chris Orme. Happy to be with you today and I'm happy to be here with my friend—I can call you my friend—we’ve hung out a bunch, albeit on zoom. But I'm happy to be here with my friend and colleague, Dena Nikolai. Dena serves as chaplain and refugee support mobilizer with the Christian Reformed Churches of British Columbia, out in the beautiful west coast of Canada, where she works to be a faithful presence for and with people who have arrived in Canada as refugees. Dena is also a program associate with World Renew’s refugee sponsorship and resettlement program. Welcome Dena. Thanks for joining us.

Dena: Thanks so much for having me.

Chris: Yeah, we're excited for this conversation. It seems timely. It seems like the world is kind of on the verge of maybe opening up again maybe not. It'll ebb and flow over the next few years; we're sure of that. But it's important to talk about refugee resettlement and I'd love to know—before we get into some other stuff—tell us a little bit about what you do, how you do it. And how long you've been involved in this work.

Dena: Sure. So, in my work in Vancouver and the lower mainland of BC. I spend a lot of time with people who have arrived as refugees or refugee claimants—so people who have come in different ways to Canada, seeking refuge and safety—and spend time just trying to be present with them in different ways, but also hosting tea and coffee and English conversation times, preparing right now for a “first Christmas in Canada” party—a little scaled down because of Covid—but a way to just celebrate some newcomers’ first holiday here, and looking ahead to hopefully more times together in the spring as well. And then I also work with different groups who are trying to support newcomers. So, that takes different shapes. The other day I was in a grade five classroom, talking to them about welcome and about advocacy, and they had prepared some welcome boxes for newcomers. So upon arrival in BC we bring people boxes of basic food and hygiene items just as that initial welcome before we really have a chance to meet them. And then with World Renew’s refugees sponsorship and resettlement program, I work with the rest of the team to help support churches and groups who are involved in the private sponsorship of refugees. So I get to meet a lot of really amazing people who have been really dedicated to this work for so many years, and many of whom have refugee experience themselves. 

Chris: Hmm, love it. I mean—I want to talk more about the dedicated group of people. But before we dive too far into our conversation together. You recently moved. You had to move during the pandemic. What does that do to the work that you do? What does that do to your mindset in the midst of it? Was there—is it like a super challenging time? What was that like moving through during the pandemic? like I don't even like going to the grocery store, so, I'm sure it was a lot. So what was that like?

Dena: Well, the thing about my move is that it was scheduled before we even knew what Covid really was. But then all of a sudden this thing called Covid hits—if we can all remember back to March 2020 when we didn't—have never heard of coronavirus or covid., most of us, anyways.

And suddenly there's this new thing you know, all of these words that are so normal for us now—“social distancing” and “covid and “pandemic”—that was all so new then. 

And so the move was scheduled, but all of a sudden people were talking about lockdowns.

And that was again—I think there's all these things we understand now that we didn't know then. So back then we didn't know how people were getting sick. We weren't sure how dangerous Covid was or wasn't. And we were hearing these things from Europe about France locking down, and people not even leaving their home without a pass or something. And people were texting me saying, “I heard maybe the Government of Canada is going to lock things down and people can't leave their homes.” And I was thinking, “well, how am I gonna move?” And at that point, I had sort of halfway started moving so some of my stuff was in my old place and some of my stuff was in my new place. And everybody was working from home at that time.

And we were like “can we even get a moving truck? What is this all going to look like? What if all of a sudden I can't leave my house and half my stuff is one place and half my stuff is in the other.

So it was a bit of a wild time. So I can say though, my community really came out for me. I have a few friends who, now I actually live in their house, and they said “well we're part of your household already, so we're just going to come and help clean your old house.” So they spent hours and hours and hours scrubbing my walls and floors and stuff like that and helping move my stuff. So the power of community even in the middle of a lot of uncertainty, it’s kinda, again, wild to look back at that now. But I’m grateful to be settled in a new place, but yeah disruptive and just the tiniest, tiniest glimpse of what so many people in the world experienced in terms of complete uncertainty and complete disruption and not knowing what home is and what safety and settlement is, yeah. 

Chris: Yeah, well, like, you know, it was, it was kind of a you know a random question. I guess like—“well why would we mention that?” But I think it's a nice segue and I love where you mentioned the importance of community, which I think leads nicely into sort of this part of our conversation. You mentioned you get to connect with different people, different groups—church groups, school groups—to talk about the importance of refugee resettlement and welcoming newcomers to Canada. But specifically within the Christian Reformed Church, there's such a legacy and history of being involved in this kind of work. Where do you see that passion of CRC folks for supporting refugees? Where have you seen that manifestation of community—even if it's a little glimpse that you experienced in your move—but where have you seen that similar kind of wave of community within CRC folks?

Dena: There’s so many things that I could say about that. I think one of the things I'll start with though is to say: for myself, for some of my colleagues and World Renews refugee sponsorship program team, and for others that I know, it's been so deeply encouraging to see the way in which churches’ faithful commitment to welcoming people who have been refugees continued through the pandemic. Because again, Covid has created so much uncertainty, especially around things like finances. So I mean if we really think about 2020 in particular, there was just a question of like what does it mean—people's jobs felt like they were on the line. Churches were trying to figure out how to take offerings. Different fundraising plans had stopped.

And I remember we thought, “are some churches going to need to pull out of their commitments to sponsorship? Or are we going to get new churches interested in sponsoring refugees with all of this uncertainty, not only around money but also around timeline? Can refugees travel? Will different countries open up?” And the commitment—people in churches' commitment to continuing to sponsor and welcome was incredible. They just kind of said “this isn't going to stop us. We're going to figure out how to do it and we'll find a way.” We didn't have any sponsorship groups pull out their hopes or commitments to sponsor. We saw churches pivot—that word that we keep using—pivot to creating quarantine plans. Suddenly they had to figure out, “okay how do we help this newcomer family who we maybe never met, don't probably speak the same language as? How do we figure out how to create a plan that will pass government approval for how they'll need to quarantine once they arrive in Canada?” And they just did it. They made it happen. And it’s deeply encouraging for me to see that faithful commitment. The CRC has been involved in refugee sponsorship for over 40 years now. We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the year before Covid hit, so glad we had the opportunity to do that. And amidst all else, I mean amidst the overwhelming numbers of the number of people who are displaced and who have found refugees—I want to keep celebrating that long and faithful commitment, that “obedience in the same direction” to quote Eugene Peterson.

Chris: Yeah. I'm wondering about—and I think we all have similar questions when we're talking about refugee resettlement, not just the process—because it seems overwhelming when you think about all of the moving pieces—but in a real practical way and maybe in the midst of Covid too—if you have newcomers who started arriving in the midst of this, how do you meet people's immediate needs, both in the short term, but also like in a culturally appropriate way? That must be a difficult challenge to navigate.

Dena: So in my work more directly with newcomers—so that's more of my chaplaincy work—I tend to actually meet people who sometimes have fallen through some of the gaps in the existing systems or the existing agencies. And they fall into the gaps for all kinds of different reasons including that systems and policies just always do have gaps and navigating them is really tricky also for newcomers. So I find that one of the best ways to think about how we address some of those immediate needs is just to listen. So I don't usually start by asking “what do you need?” or “how can I help?” because sometimes that's not the most dignifying question. It's not the most helpful question either. And so instead I just say, “let's sit down with this cup of coffee.

And I just like to hear about how you're doing. Tell me about your family. How are you feeling about being here,?” And letting the conversation go kind of the direction it needs to, trying to be sort of this calm, non-anxious presence and let people name what they need to name.

One of the things that I say often is every person who has been a refugee has a different story. And they all feel differently about what it means to be a refugee. Some people really want to claim that title and they say “yes, that's a part of my story. I want to share that.” Other people say, “No, please don't use that word. That for me represents the worst thing that ever happened to me. And that's not something that I want to be identified as.”

And so I leave space for people to name what they want to name. Some people want to talk about their refugee journey; other people don't. They want to tell me about their home, and how much they love it and how much they miss it. And they want to tell me about what's happening for them, now, here in Canada—maybe what they're hoping for and looking for. So I try to pay attention to the different things that people are saying and try to identify what's underneath of it. And for every person that looks a little bit different in terms of the way that I and others with me can best provide support for that person or that individual. So there's no one size fits all. No one answer.

I do remember one man—and I've told this story in different places—but I said to him “how do you think Canadians can best help people who have been refugees?” And he said “well first of all I don't really love that word ‘help.’” And he said, “Because I do feel like I’ve been helped a lot even just by getting here.” And he said “now I want to put my hands together with Canadians and I want to start working together for the common good of all of Canada and all people who live here.” 

And he also said “I don't love the word refugee, because when I hear the word refugee I think of someone who's poor and helpless. And that's not what I am.” 

And so, I also think as we begin to talk with newcomers and think about supporting them, how do we make sure we're doing it in a way that is providing opportunities to put our hands together with them and work together with them? And sometimes we take away—unintentionally—we take away that opportunity for them to participate and be involved in both their own moving forward but also working together so that all of us are moving forward and creating a place that is welcoming for anyone.

Chris: Hmm. Yeah,that's super powerful actually. I think of my sort of learning continuum, as it comes to development—and I've been with World Renew for, into my fourth year now—and the amount that I’ve learned in my time here—I probably had a little bit of that sort of the “great white savior mentality.” But as you learn and unpack and deconstruct some of those old models of thinking, you move into this “oh wow, paternalism.” It's way better to do ‘with’ than do ‘for.’ So I love that image.

In that space, in that moment, how do you navigate that conversation? Or how do you identify “okay I want to work with this person?” What signals can you send to someone to let them know that this is a ‘with.’ This is a partnership, this is not just us doing ‘for.’

Dena: Maybe—this seems a little counterintuitive—but sometimes the best way to start doing that is actually to say less rather than say more. And this is a bit tangential but I think one of the things that we've been learning through this pandemic— I think because I've been seeing different conversations, especially in church communities—is about the importance of the power of lament, and grieving and doing that as a community together.

Because sometimes there are problems and griefs that can't just be solved. There's not really an answer for them immediately. Or in order to understand how we might move ahead we have to sit with it for a while. And I find that often when newcomers are telling me about the challenges that they have faced and they do face, they're not necessarily telling me because they immediately want me to suggest an answer or a solution, or give them something that's going to make it better.

They just need to be seen and heard. And I've met newcomers who are not really newcomers anymore—they've been here for a few years—and they'll say “I don't feel like anyone here in Canada has really heard me, or really seen me.”

And so sometimes just sitting with them and the things that they need to lament, and the things that they need to grieve, and just being in that space with them for a while and not saying a lot—sometimes things begin to emerge about how we might move towards healing, towards flourishing, towards this idea of Shalom and restoration, that we talk about that it can take time to understand what that looks like.

And I keep thinking about the story of Hagar in the Bible because Hagar is one of those first stories in scripture where, where she says, “God saw me. Nobody else saw me, nobody else really saw what I was going through and the way in which I had been harmed.” And she says, “but God is a God who sees.” And I think that's really a call to Christians to really see, and to listen and to take that time.

And I think that's the thing with newcomers as well. and I think we do get kind of anxious. We think we have to help. We have to solve. We have to fix. And, sometimes we can't. So, sitting in the grief and letting people lament what they've lost as well. 

I think sometimes I've heard—and probably done it myself too—we jump into the space where we want to say, “Oh, but aren't you so glad you're in Canada? Isn't it so good to be here?” And for newcomers they're thinking “yes, I'm glad to be safe, but if I had a choice I never would have left my home.” 

So many times I hear the phrase said in different ways “I love my home. My home just didn't love me. And that's why I'm here.”

And so how do we give them space to grieve that and to say “yeah, I can only imagine how hard it is for you. And I too wish you had never had to leave your home. I am glad you're here and I want to welcome you here, but I want to acknowledge that deep, deep grief that you will probably carry in different ways for the rest of your life.”

Chris: Yeah, and I think it's such an important piece for us to remember, for our listeners, for anyone who's wanting to sort of get involved in  working with folks who do refugee resettlement work like you, are working with newcomers. There are reasons why people have fled. And they're happy to be safe, but they've left their home. What a huge emotional and maybe spiritual piece to carry as well. I think we get fixated too on we can see the need, but we forget that there are people involved. So that's a great reminder for us.

I want to talk more about the people. I want to talk about advocacy and movement. So could you tell us—we're going to shift gears a little bit—can you tell us about the Half Welcome advocacy campaign and how it made a difference for real people? What are we talking about when we say “Half Welcome?'' That sounds like “whoa what the heck are you talking about?” But lay that one out for us because this is fascinating to me. I love this.

Dena: Sure. Yeah, so the Half Welcome report  is a report that came out of Citizens for Public Justice, CPJ, based in Ottawa. And it was called a “Half Welcome” because it pointed out some of the issues and challenges and flaws in Canada's private sponsorship program. That meant that we were not providing a full welcome for refugees who are being privately sponsored. We were providing a half welcome.

And so, a number of wonderful people at CPJ did some excellent research. They talked to private sponsors. They talked to refugees who've been privately sponsored. And they identified some key challenges and they identified the ways in which the government could take action to address these challenges. And that was several years ago and since then they've published an update, sort of a progress report called Continuing Welcome.

And so by me mentioning that I'm really trying to amplify the work of others, because I am benefiting greatly from the work that they have done, including--I just want to mention—Stephen Kaduuli who was the refugee rights policy analyst for Citizens for Public Justice who passed away last year. And he was such an amazing advocate for and with people who had been refugees. I'm so grateful for his life and his legacy and his work and for the ways in which that has and will continue to benefit so many different people in different ways.

So the Half Welcome report highlighted a number of challenges and a number of them remain challenges and in fact were made worse by Covid. But there was one in particular that I want to highlight because it is a story of the way in which advocacy made a big difference. So that was travel loans for refugees. So you may or may not know that when refugees arrive in Canada, whether they arrived as government system refugees are privately sponsored, they actually have to pay for their own plane tickets. They had to in the past.

And people who worked with newcomers saw the great burden that those travel loans were on them. So they arrive here. They're getting support for their first year in Canada but it's not a lot, and suddenly they have this debt on their shoulders and it's incredibly stressful. So sponsors and advocates and faith communities started to say “we need to find a way to change this.” So refugees were being asked to start paying it back within 30 days of arriving, and it was accruing interest so just compounding the stress.

So, the Half Welcome report said “this needs to change.” So different faith communities, including many people from the CRC, including the Center for Public Dialogue and Mike Hogeterp and others started talking to their elected officials, started writing letters, started spreading the word.

And after several months of this, I am very happy to say that the government made the decision to, number one, takeaway the interest from the loans. And number two, to make sure that newcomers didn't need to start thinking about repaying them until after they've been here for a year.

And that was just an incredible celebration. I mean of course we'd still love to see the travel loans taken away entirely, but those two steps have made an incredible difference for newcomers who no longer feel that deep burden, especially in their first couple of months of being here. 

Chris: I mean—that's such a clear tangible example. And you've seen movement on that.

Are there other issues that come out of the report or other issues that you as sort of a frontline worker—where do we put our advocacy focus now? What's the most pressing need now?

Dena: Unfortunately, Covid-19 and the travel restrictions related to Covid-19—some of which were within the Canadian government's control and many of which were not—have really increased the wait times. So the time between when a sponsorship group submits an application to sponsor a refugee family and when that family arrives: those wait times have really jumped and the backlog and the cases has really increased.

So, unfortunately Canada has been able to welcome so many fewer thousands of refugees in the last couple of years because of Covid. And so that means there's that many more people waiting so over 50,000 people in the backlog.

And that is something that—again, we know that only some of that is within the Canadian government's control—but we'd like them to continue to prioritize the work on that backlog.

Because we use the word ‘backlog’ and ‘case numbers’ and things, but all those represent people in need of safety. And we just want the government to hear that that is a priority. And so your elected officials, they don't know necessarily that that is a priority for Canadians unless Canadians tell them.

So, our elected officials, or our MPs, have so many things on their plate, so many things to think about of course, so they do need to hear the real stories of how these wait times impact real people.

So when a group that is privately sponsoring, for example—when they go and they meet with their elected official and they say “hey we just want to tell you about this family waiting and how long they've been waiting and what it's like for them. And we just want to encourage you to continue keeping that at the forefront of government policy and funding and changes”—that's really important to highlight for the government that this is something that we care about. Because how will they know if we don't tell them?

Chris: Yeah. Awesome invitation, a great challenge too. So let's talk about that then. How do we on ramp into that advocacy? Because we have identified—and I've experienced, oh man— just the generosity and the willingness of people to put sweat equity inot “let's gather resources. Let's get furniture. Let's work on the living space.” My family has been involved in that too and it's really—we love doing that. And I know our folks in the CRC, we're hands on people. We want to do this. And I say “we”—I'm a transplant into the CRC but I'm just taking ownership of it right now. But we do; we want to get in there with our hands and do this stuff. But how do we move along the continuum? What's the on ramp then into the advocacy piece? How do people get connected with campaigns like the Half Welcome campaign that addresses these systemic problems? How can folks get involved in that? 

Dena: Yeah. And let me just say first that I love the hands on thing too. That's important too. Both of them are important. To be hands on and then to also be thinking about the policy application—so hands on with helping people but then also thinking “well, why are we needing to do this? What are the policy pieces of this?” Or if we're more on the policy end of things thinking “how are we also going to engage in the mutual aid sort of the more direct work as well?”

But in terms of engaging the advocacy, I think it is important for people to remember that you don't have to be a policy expert in order to talk to your MP, or write to your MP, or your MLA depending on what issue it is. It is their job to figure out the direct policy implications. That said, of course it's very important to be informed, to know a little bit about what it is that you're asking, and to ensure that you're asking for something that actually is possible within the realm of an elected official's work, of course.

And I'll say too, to be encouraging of our elected officials. So as we go in to say “thank you for your work. And let me tell you a little bit about what I hope we can keep doing.” 

So organizations like Citizens for Public Justice, like the CRC Center for Public Dialogue, they have some great resources. And so they can both help you to send a quick email to your MP, if that's all you feel that you have the capacity for at the moment, but they can also provide resources and help you think through how you might set up a meeting with your elected official. And something like the Faith in Action advocacy workshop which Cindy Stover runs for the Christian Reformed Church— you could invite her in to do that with your group or with your church, which can give you very practical tools for setting up a meeting.

Or if you feel bold, you can just go ahead and contact your MP, and say, “I'd love to sit down with you and talk to you about this particular topic,” whatever it is. With the refugee stuff again, you could print out a copy of the Half Welcome report or the Continuing Welcome report, highlight a couple of the things that you particularly would like to talk about, bring that report with you and plan to leave it with your MP and say “these are a few of the things that are really important to me.” And bring a friend with you so that it's not too intimidating to meet with your MP.

And one of the things that Mike Hogeterp at the Center for Public Dialogue really emphasizes is “do think about this as a continuing relationship with your elected official.” So it's not just a one and done, you know, “here's what I want.” Think about how you might continue to encourage and communicate with your MP, including if there is a policy change that you feel excited about, sending them a quick note to say “hey, thanks so much. I noticed this. I'm really encouraged by it and I'm grateful for your work.”

Chris: And our elected officials—I mean I know I can speak from experience—when I first started getting involved in various advocacy campaigns and reaching out to my MP here in my writing,

I was so surprised with how quickly I heard from her office and how deeply engaged she would go. So take heart, everybody. Our elected officials understand that they are elected officials and they know that it's their job and their responsibility and their duty to hear the concerns of their constituents. Has that been your experience too, Dena?

Dena: Absolutely, 100%. I've had great experiences speaking with elected officials, including going with newcomers to the MP in their area. And these are newcomers who have often permanent residence, but they don't yet have citizenship—they haven't been here long enough—and the MP is very willing to talk with them and very willing to say, “you know, let's see what we could do to work on this particular situation that you're dealing with.” 

And that's been such a good reminder to me because sometimes newcomers will come to me and they'll say, “I heard I can talk to my elected official.” And they say, in different ways, “that is the most amazing thing ever.” Because most people who have been refugees, they come from a place where it is inconceivable that you could walk into your government officials office and have a meeting with them, that they would take you seriously. And so that's been such a reminder to me of the gifts that we have with that. And it's encouraging for them too, to feel like they are taking some steps.

So that's sort of that ‘with’ as well—that ‘with’ but not ‘for’—going with a newcomer if you're connected to someone in a different way, who is facing a particular challenge or their family’s facing a challenge to go with them to their MP’s office and sit down at that meeting with them and work with them and support them in communicating what they would like to, to their MP as well. 

And also, don't be discouraged if you end up meeting with the MP’s staff rather than the MP themselves. On the issues like immigration, for example, many MPs have one or two staff members who actually know more about the specifics of immigration than the MP themselves, so sometimes they'll ask you to meet with their staff, which is wonderful as well.

Chris: That's awesome. Yeah. Dena, this has been great. I mean I've learned a lot. I love when I get to chat with you. Iit doesn't happen too often—it doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like it to happen,let's put it that way—but I'm grateful for you. I'm grateful for the work that you do.

Tell us again. You listed a few resources. Where can people go to find out some more information about—and we’ll link all of this in the description for the show—where can people go to find some more information and get on, get on board?

Dena: Yeah. So I'd encourage you to Google Citizens for Public Justice, Continuing Welcome report. And you can also Google the Center for Public Dialogue, and specifically the refugee justice section if that's a particular part you're looking at, but you can also look up their Faith in Action Biblical advocacy workshop as well. So there's some excellent resources there, and they have a great action alert center as well that will give you an opportunity to contact your MP directly and give you an idea of what you might say, especially if it's a refugee justice issue that you're interested in talking with your elected officials about.

Chris: Folks, if you or your church community are interested in sponsoring a refugee or finding out more information, you can also visit And chances are you'll end up talking to Dena or our amazing team. Dena, this has been great. Thank you so much for joining us. All the best to you. God bless.

Dena: thank you so much!


The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.