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Waiting at the Airport

December 9th, I took a circuitous route to the airport making some last minute pick ups. It was the usual dark and cold of winter in the B.C. interior. I traced my way through the lamp lit roads of the city following Siri’s voice directing me towards a friend’s parents’ house where I would dig a plastic bag out of a storage box. I hoped the neighbours wouldn’t be concerned given the late hour.  All day I’d been sending a flurry of texts trying to arrange a collection of winter coats of various sizes and ensuring the final set up of the apartment was finished. Today was a big day for our tiny church. A day we had waited far longer than expected for. Finally, after almost 5 long years, our refugee family from Syria was arriving. The drive gave me time for reflection.

The discussion of sponsoring a refugee family started almost as soon as I arrived to pastor a little church plant in January 2018. Early on I discerned this servant hearted church had a lot of love to give but needed something that would draw us together. One of our members already sat on the local refugee settlement committee and my best friend’s dinner church had sponsored a family a couple of years earlier and had found it transformative and rewarding. The idea percolated awhile before we began sifting profiles, having to make the heartbreaking and impossible decision of choosing just one. We prayed and considered. We reflected on this uncomfortable position of power. Finally we settled on one. A mom and three boys. The mom was the same age as a couple of us moms. The youngest boy, the same age as some of our own children. But it was the older two children that convinced us this was the family we were called to sponsor. The profiles had the boys as late teens. If they had been able to travel immediately they would be considered one family group. But it was an estimated 12-18 months until they’d arrive. By then the oldest would need a seperate sponsorship and very few straight, single men are approved. Not wanting this family to be torn any further apart, we prepared to sponsor them as 2, maybe even 3 applications. Excitement was high. We all began setting aside items for the family and watching apartment ads. One member managed to line up a flexible apartment which could be available as a transitional space if the family arrived within the next couple of years.

But the paperwork was unending. And classifications are hard when culture is different. Even the spellings of names can be inconsistent as the transliteration from Arabic to English is imprecise. We grew frustrated. The set aside items were becoming clutter. Nobody had a large amount of space to store it all. Furnishings would need to be recollected when we had a firm date.

But as I look at my own children, I could not imagine being delayed for so much of their childhood.

And then Covid hit.

All refugee processing and movement ground to a halt. We stopped getting estimates on wait times. As a church, we lost our weekly rental space. Our sponsorship champion got offered a job abroad and she and her family moved away. Church finances dwindled and whether we’d hang on long enough to settle our family became a real concern.

And then the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out. Appropriately, Canada opened her doors to a new collection of refugees. In July we got news our family would arrive in 4-6 weeks. We celebrated cautiously and again started to make arrangements. And again the time dragged on. By the time the plane tickets were issued, we needed winter rather than summer clothes.

I arrived at the airport early. The anticipation exploding out of me. More of my church family joined me and a flood of Syrians filled the waiting area. Apparently there was another refugee family arriving on this flight as well. Friends and relatives of both families waited eagerly.

Finally, two very tall young men came around the corner. I blinked back tears. Then their little brother and finally their mom. When it was finally my turn to give her a hug and someone explained who we were, both of us dissolved in tears.

Since then there have been many challenges for this family and I find myself considering the cost of lost time for them. The towering young men were boys when they left Syria and education for them ended at that point. The youngster was born as a refugee. 5 years earlier and the young men could have integrated into high school with the gift of structure and peers. 5 years earlier and the youngest would have barely been behind his peers at school. 5 years less hardship that has left its mark on each of them. I am cautious not to share to much because it is their story, not mine. But as I look at my own children, I could not imagine being delayed for so much of their childhood. I’m left wondering why it all had to take so long. It’s time to insist we do better.

Take up Jenn's call to do better by contacting your MP on the lengthly wait times being experienced.  

Photo provided by the author.

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