Facing the Unexpected
Each refugee committee faces expected tasks and responsibilities, such as finding housing and employment, organizing schooling and ESL classes, scheduling medical appointments and more. But often committees encounter unexpected tasks and responsibilities due to unforeseen circumstances. Refugee committee members have shared stories of unanticipated and sometimes difficult developments during their sponsorships. We are going to share some of these scenarios with you below.
Our purpose in sharing this complication isn’t to focus on offering solutions to each problem these churches encountered while sponsoring a refugee. Rather, we hope to prepare you for the fact that no sponsorship journey follows a predictable path. Refugee sponsorship is a complex process. Each is unique. Outcomes can’t be forecast. Besides preparing you, we also hope these stories will encourage you as you remember that others have faced obstacles and have, by God’s grace, prevailed.
Each refugee committee is expected to find housing for the refugees. That’s a responsibility you count on having. However, sometimes housing becomes an unexpected challenge. Consider the following scenarios:
- You sponsor a family that came at extremely short notice (which is not uncommon) and arrive before you have found adequate housing for them. You arrange for them to stay with other recent newcomers from their native land. While there, they discuss housing possibilities among themselves. Your newcomer family is informed by their hosts about desirable and undesirable places to live in your town. When you choose housing for them that is within your and their budget, but in one of these “undesirable” locations, they are dissatisfied. They then choose an apartment that will be too expensive for them to afford once your sponsorship is completed. Without the funds to rent the apartment, the family might have to go on social assistance and could be forced into a housing crisis.
- You house an extended newcomer family in a spacious home that has two apartments. You soon discover that family members have long-simmering hatred for each other and won’t, or can’t live together. When allegations of sexual abuse between family members arise, it becomes clear that the lease will be broken and the family will split up, now needing two residences.
Providing necessary material goods for the newcomers is an expected responsibility – one that is usually easily managed with the goodwill of a supportive Christian community. However, sometimes this aspect of sponsorship poses unforeseen challenges. Consider the following development:
You have supplied everything the newcomer family needs. Because you want to work within your church’s budget and be stewardly with material things, you collect gently used, good quality furniture and household goods from your enthusiastic church fellowship. You assume that the goods will be treasured. However, within a few months, you discover that most of what you contributed has been discarded and replaced with brand new items. You wonder, why did we go through all this effort only to have everything given away? And, you think, if future needs arise, can we in good faith ask our community to contribute again when their last offerings weren’t valued?
When you sponsor refugees, your thoughts are about life, not death. All your efforts are geared toward helping the newcomers flourish. However, that’s not always how events develop.
Consider the following two circumstances:
- Your committee welcomes an extended family consisting of a grandmother, two of her children and five grandchildren. Three weeks to the day that they arrive in Canada, the grandmother dies because, unbeknownst to you, she is terminally ill with cancer. You are now faced with funeral planning and costs. You must also support the family through offering prayers, empathy physical presence during the visitation, funeral and a luncheon after the funeral.
- Your committee deals with tragedy when a newcomer’s child is struck by a car and killed soon after the family arrives in Canada. You and your church community support the family through visits and funeral expenses are paid for by the church.
Refusal to Settle in Your Community
When you welcome newcomers to Canada, you expect that they will settle in your community. However, almost directly or in the next few months, you discover that your assumptions were incorrect. Consider these possible developments:
- After 8 months in Canada, a single mother decides she wants to move out of her small rural community to be near friends in another province who have offered her free accommodation for as long as she wants. She only lives with her friend for a month and then decides she needs a place of her own and asks her sponsor for financial support.
- As soon as you newcomer family is settled in the apartment, the teenage boy asks when they can move to a large city. He doesn’t want to live in a small town because he is uncomfortable in a place where few visible minorities live. As in school, he meets other non-white students and so he is able, for a while, to accept where he lives. But before the end of your year-long sponsorship, once again the family talks about moving. They want to relocate to a city where their friends live. You try to discourage them from making the move until the sponsorship is complete and the school year is finished, but they decide to leave beforehand. You do what you can for them to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Sexual, Physical and Verbal Abuse
When you sponsor refugees, you hope for the best in terms of human relationships, both within the newcomer family and between the newcomer and the committee. However, your expectations aren’t always realized. In fact, sometimes you are horrified to discover that sexual, physical and verbal abuses are problems that you have to confront. Consider these two cases:
- One of the newcomers accuses the other of abuse and informs your committee of the accusations. You weight the information, aware of the fact that at times people falsely accuse others of sexual abuse. You also know that the allegations could be true. You are responsible for both the accused and the alleged victim of abuse. You call Family and Children’s Services (FACS) to discuss the case. Some of the family members enter a shelter for a short time. Afterward, FACS makes it clear to the newcomers that the alleged abuse may not be in the vicinity of other family members.
- One of the newcomers is verbally abusive to committee members, pent-up anger turns to vocalized rage. The newcomer is confronted about his aggressive behavior, but he refuses to change. Eventually, he and his family leave your community. You breathe a sigh of relief because of his unwillingness to adopt healthy forms of communication has soured your relationship.
When you enter a relationship in good faith, you expect the same in return. You enter refugee sponsorship in a spirit of truth. However, you discover that sometimes it is not reciprocated.
Perhaps if you consider where refugees have come from and what they have had to do to survive, you won’t be shocked or hurt when you discover they have lied to you. Desperate people will do what they need to do to survive. Does that excuse their lying? Of course not, but it does give you a framework in which to deal with it. If you decide to confront the newcomer about lies, that have been told, be prepared for any number of responses: more lies, denial, anger, acceptance, repentance, or a desire to be more truthful in the future.
You assume that information provided to your committee prior to the newcomer’s arrival will enlighten you about ant medical concerns that they have. However, when the family arrives, you discover that some of the newcomers have significant physical challenges. Perhaps, the father suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder and is unemployable because of his mental state. Maybe a family has a child with severe cerebral palsy. Or perhaps a parent who is legally blind arrives in the care of your committee. You access the services in your community that best meet the needs of each individual. Your committee needs to rethink the time commitment that the sponsorship will take and might call on others to carry the unexpected load.
Suggestions for Coping with Unexpected Challenges
Unexpected challenges require coping mechanisms that will keep a refugee committee healthy and functioning. The following suggestions are not specific suggestions geared to the problems cited above. Rather, they are general guidelines that can be applied to many difficult situations.
Be aware that you will face problems. Don’t expect that the sponsorship will be effortless and easy. It probably won’t be. If it is, you will be pleasantly surprised. Take the long view. If things are difficult, try to picture where the refugees will be in five or ten years in terms of employment, education, assimilation, spiritual life and emotional healing.
Clear communication is one of the keys to the development of a flourishing sponsorship and to the functioning of a thriving refugee committee. When communication with the newcomer breaks down, either because of misunderstandings due to language or cultural differences or because of personality clashes, extra effort needs to be made to restore it. The same is true for communications among refugee committee members. The clear articulation of goals, roles, responsibilities, and frustrations are necessary for keeping a common vision alive – the mission of caring for the newcomer family no matter what difficulties emerge.
Each refugee committee member enters the sponsorship with some expectations of what will happen. Be aware of the expectations that you have of the refugees. Are they fair and realistic? Are you expecting the refugees to assimilate into Canadian life and to become independent faster than they are able to? Or are your expectations of them not high enough? Are you doing too much for them, so that they don’t learn to become independent, and instead form an unhealthy dependence on the refugee committee? Are you trying to fix all their problems, instead of giving them the knowledge and inspiring the confidence they need to become contributors to society? Do you expect newcomers to attend your church and worship with you? Or are you expecting that they will make their own choices as to where they will worship?
Access Outside Resources
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes more than a refugee committee to help a newcomer family resettle in a new land. As problems arise, contact people who can be of assistance: your pastor, settlement workers, the children’s aid society in your area, Immigration, Refugee & Citizenship Canada officials, teachers, other newcomers who have previously settled in Canada, and people from their own culture who live in your community. Each of these people might have valuable input to lighten your load and broaden your understanding of the newcomers.
Celebration hardly seems like a solution to problems, but it can be. Even when you face difficult circumstances, take time to celebrate newcomer’s birthdays and other occasions. Generous love and small gifts contributed to a party atmosphere can go a long way to forging love, healing wounds, and building trust.
God sustains, protects and loves you as you struggle through trying circumstances with newcomers, but he also changes you. He makes you more open to people from different cultures and ways of life out of the realm of your experience. He shapes you to be more patient when you face adversity with them. He helps you to realize that you don’t have all the answers and that you can’t fix all the problems. Only he does and only he can. He teaches you to pray fervently, sometimes desperately, as you strive to be his hands and feet to newcomers. He makes you aware that ultimately you are serving him as you serve the newcomers, and that all that matters is that he receives the glory. It doesn’t belong to you. He is the source of your joy when things go well and especially when they don’t. He gives you the privilege of gaining the trust of the newcomers and of sharing the love. In other words, he pours out his blessing on you in unexpected ways. You realize that, when all is said and done, no unexpected challenge is too great for Yahweh, the Almighty.