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Recently I visited Joseph Bya and his wife Sana in their home in Cornwall, Ontario. Sitting in their bright, comfortable kitchen, we reminisced about the day, 8 years earlier, when we first met in person. We met at the Ottawa airport on May 26, 2016. I was there with my husband, George, and a group of people from our refugee committee. We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive. As we watched the escalator for signs of Joseph and his family, we wondered if they would be exhausted from their long journey. They had left Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, a couple of days earlier to make the journey to their new country. So many kilometers, flying over the vast ocean, and now they were here. Finally we saw the little group descending the long metal stairway…the last few meters of their journey. Joseph was carrying his young daughter Jennifer, and Sana followed with 7 year old Eleazar. My heart filled with joy and thanksgiving that this little family had finally arrived, and was safely with us.  

The story of the Bya family’s arrival here in Canada started, for George and myself, with the  news on CBC. For several years we had been listening to the reports of the Syrian refugee  crisis, and we were perturbed and felt upset at what these people were going through. But what could we do? We prayed. We shook our heads and prayed some more. We prayed every day for the people who were being forced out of their country. We thought back to the refugee  crisis during the late 70s, when so many people sought to escape from Communist forces in  Vietnam, and took to flimsy boats. Now it was happening again. More boat people. Then little Alan Kurdi’s body was found on a muddy shore in Turkey. His family had reportedly sought asylum in Canada but their refugee application had been turned down. We had recently  become grandparents, and the tragedy brought the Syrian refugee crisis into sharp focus for us, as for many others. We asked for prayer in church.  

George made calls. He had conversations. He told some people in his blunt manner “I need you on our Refugee Committee.” 

George said, ‘We have to do something. We have to help.’ He asked our council at Immanuel  CRC in Cornwall to consider sponsoring refugees. Many of our members, he argued, came to Canada from the Netherlands in the 50s after the war and were generally received with open arms. His own family, Jake and Tina Velema, with 3 young children, arrived by ship in 1959.  They shared a farmhouse with a kind elderly couple who were not Dutch, but wanted to help.  They got their start through the kindness and support of the Dutch CRC community in Sarnia,  but also through the kindness of strangers. My own family Dirk and Idske Douwes, arrived  from Blija Friesland  in August,1951, with 3 children in tow, including me, a 9 month old baby.  We settled in Wyoming, Ontario, and before long my father had a job and was able to support  his family, which eventually grew to include 10 children.  

Both George and I, having raised our 3 sons who were all married, with professional careers,  felt blessed beyond measure. Why shouldn’t we help people who were desperate to escape  threats of violence and untenable conditions in their homelands? We decided to see who else  in our church family felt the same way and would join our cause. George made calls. He had conversations. He told some people in his blunt manner “I need you on our Refugee Committee.” 

A number of folks agreed to meet. George communicated with World Renew about their  Refugee Sponsorship Program, and looked into government policies regarding refugees. On  May 28, 2015 the committee held its first exploratory meeting: What were we called to do? We  needed to be open to the possibility that God had something else in mind for us. We asked for  a sign from the Spirit.  

Our church had some issues, though. As a congregation, we had been struggling for years with  declining membership. Many of the younger generation, including our own children, were moving away, or losing interest. We wanted to continue as a church family, but our resources  were dwindling with the membership. We needed a new roof, and renovations. Council  prayerfully considered sponsorship, but decided that before they gave official support, they would require a detailed plan and specifics on how Council could help. An initial $5,000 would have to be raised to determine financial commitment from the congregation. 

We realized that none of this was OUR idea.  

As a committee, we prayed for the Spirit”s leading. The first nudge from the Holy Spirit came in  the form of a thought: “We are a community of believers, and our church doesn’t have to go it alone!” We approached our sister church, Community CRC in Dixon’s Corners, and asked for  their help. Together we decided to form a joint Refugee Sponsorship Committee. Another Spirit  sign came at our first joint meeting, held on December 2, 2015. George opened with a  devotional from the world Renew Refugee Sponsorship Handbook, based on Phil 2:12-13.  Verse 13 states “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good  purpose.” We realized that none of this was OUR idea.  

Funds began to accumulate quickly. One committee member approached many of his  business contacts, and within a few weeks more than $5,000 was raised. Another sign from the Spirit, we were sure. Immanuel Council endorsed a pledge campaign. Community CRC had special collections. We were on our way to raise the necessary funds. 

As a committee we sought World Renew’s help, and we quickly realized the magnitude of the  job ahead of us. We decided to apply for a family through the “blended visa office referred  program” or BVOR. Through this program refugees are referred to private sponsors by the  Canadian government and the costs of the sponsorship are shared by the church and the  government. The church must commit to providing startup costs and is to provide all the  hands-on support for the settlement for the sponsorship year. Because the Syrian BVOR cases were still being finalized, and it would be much more complicated to get information on these  people, we applied to sponsor a non-Syrian family. 

In a very few weeks World Renew had a list of families ready for us to choose from. We prayed for God’s leading in making this choice, and decided on the Byas, a Myanmar family of 4 living as refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Once World Renew informed us that this family was willing to come to Canada, George sent them a letter via the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, telling them how excited and happy we were that God had led us to them. Joseph Bya replied immediately, thanking us and praising God. “We are ready to leave for Canada any time, and are waiting for your call…Thank you for loving us.” 

They felt, in their words, “like a bird flying across the ocean, seeking a branch on which to rest and find refuge.”

We were amazed. We had been connected with  a Christian family. Not only that, but Joseph explained that he was serving the Lord among Myanmar refugees, especially the Lisu ethnic group, as a pastor! We did not expect this when we started the sponsorship journey. Joseph and his family were eager to come as soon as possible, but we had much work to do to get ready for them. Every committee member had a specific job, from filling in forms to finding housing. It was a time of joyful activity. Even cleaning and furnishing the apartment was so much fun.  

Thankfully, the time flew by quickly and we had a date for our beloved family’s arrival. Meeting  the Byas at the Ottawa airport was just the beginning of a busy, exciting year for all of us. But  for Joseph and Sana, it was also a time of stress. As they have shared with us, they were fleeing conditions that were not only difficult, but dangerous. Sana has told me of her fear of  police, which persisted for a few years after coming to Cornwall. In Myanmar they could be  arrested and imprisoned and even killed at any time. As refugees living illegally in Malaysia they  had no rights and were subjected to intimidation and violence. Coming to Canada they felt, in their words, “like a bird flying across the ocean, seeking a branch on which to rest and find refuge.” Despite the stress and difficulty of leaving their family and community and adjusting to  a whole new way of life in Canada, they finally felt safe. As Joseph says, “We are HOME.” 

Our Refugee Sponsorship Committee, meanwhile, has not been idle.

Joseph and Sana’s family has grown since their arrival in Cornwall. Another son, Sali, was born  in 2017, and little Isabel came along in 2019. They bless us often during our worship services with their enthusiastic duets, accompanied by big brother Eleazar on the keyboard. Joseph  often leads the Praise and Worship Team with his guitar and voice, and even preaches from our pulpit occasionally. He also preaches regularly at the Revival Christian Fellowship Church in  Ottawa, which is comprised mainly of Lisu people. When they arrived Joseph and Sana immediately started English language training, and within a year Joseph had secured employment. On August 24, 2022 they became Canadian citizens. They are a busy family, but their priority is helping refugees and other people seeking refuge, even sharing their home for extended periods of time with those settling in Cornwall.  

Our Refugee Sponsorship Committee, meanwhile, has not been idle. Two years after the Byas’ arrival, the Masumbuko family, originally from Congo but living in a refugee camp in Malawi, joined us. Ramazan, who graduated from Ottawa U last summer with a degree in International  Relations, now heads our Committee and works for the Federal Government in the  resettlement of refugees. We are currently working on private sponsorship of family members  of some of our new Canadians. Many people from Africa and Asia, sponsored by the Canadian Government, have come to our church, and that means continued work in helping people settle into their new life here. Last week a visiting pastor preached his sermon on the topic of 'Listening to the Holy Spirit.' What a blessing! 

My husband George passed into the arms of his Heavenly Father in October, 2021. The legacy he left behind is a passion for helping others. I believe that passion was ignited by the Holy Spirit, and is alive in our church. The testimonies and examples shown to us by our new Canadians have helped us grow in the Lord. Recently (June 9) we observed Refugee Sunday. Scripture was read in Swahili, Burmese, Filipino, and French. Honore, our most recent arrival from Congo, gave his testimony. Together, we sang the song “No Longer A Slave to Fear.”  It was a time of joy, celebrating God’s faithfulness.

There are many resources available to churches for World Refugee Day and Refugee Sunday.  Start with this toolkit!

Photo Credit: Immanuel CRC in Cornwall celebrates Refugee Sunday.  Photo provided by the author.

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