Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Private Refugees

Private Refugees

In my social circles and across the country, well-meaning community members are banding together to sponsor Syrian refugees. In addition to official government refugees the Canadian government has some program that allows private individuals and groups to sponsor refugees themselves. It costs a lot of money to do this, which is one reason people are organizing themselves into sponsorship groups.

There are a lot of criticisms one might make about private refugee sponsorship and a lot of criticisms one might make about the focus on Syria. But overall I am heartened by the process so far. I think private sponsorship of refugees is probably more effective than government sponsorship.

First, when people get together to collectively sponsor a refugee they strengthen community bonds. I find that working together on projects with others is a better way of building relationships than parties or meet-and-greets or other misguided attempts at community building. (Do you remember students who partnered with you on class projects in high school? I do.) Some of the bonds formed as people fundraise and support their refugees will last decades.

Second, collective sponsorship of refugees means those refugees will have built-in support networks when they arrive. There will be multiple people who can help newcomers settle in and integrate into Canadian society. In many cases, I believe these supports will last longer and be stronger than government-run or nonprofit supports, because the latter only support their "clients" so long as funding is available. Community members do not have the same constraints.

Third, sponsoring refugees will give the sponsors valuable insights and understandings into refugee issues and the complexity of other human beings. Not all of the understandings will be positive; my perceptions of poor people have changed significantly since I got involved with Recycle Cycles and the cult, and in some ways I am more exasperated with poor people than I was before. But even this is worthwhile, because reducing ignorance is a net positive. I may be more cynical about poor people, but I am even more cynical about the naive solutions people who have never interacted with poor people proffer to solve poverty.

Fourth, it is a great benefit to get regular Canadians involved in the refugee process directly, because this fosters a sense of involvement and further reduces xenophobia. The fact that many of the sponsoring groups is an added advantage, because it promotes social mixing. When institutions subsequently crack down on refugee rights, maybe more people will notice and speak up.

Fifth, there is a small chance that this could turn into a virtuous circle. The sponsorship craze was spurred on by news stories and awful photographs. Maybe once groups have gone through one round of sponsorship, they will keep up the habit. Maybe some of Syrian refugees will settle in Canada and then "pay it forward" by sponsoring others.

If these arguments sound wishful, you're probably right. I have no illusions that every private sponsorship will be successful. Sometimes the groups that formed in good faith to sponsor a refugee family will fall apart through neglect or petty political conflict. Some refugees will not find a good support network within their sponsors, and will be left to fend on their own. Some sponsors will discover unpleasant things about their refugees and become more bitter and xenophobic, ot less. Some other news story will tug at our hearts and this fashion of sponsoring refugees will be forgotten. In a few months (or weeks) the media backlash against adopting refugees will begin. But on the whole I feel that people are working together and taking responsibility for refugees in ways that they would not have if the government took all the responsibility for itself, and I feel that is a good thing.

Even though I work for a nonprofit institution I do not trust nonprofit institutions, any more than I trust governments or businesses. What else is there? According to John McKnight in his book The Careless Society, the answer is community. Citizens in community have the capacity to care for and contribute to each other in ways that are closed to larger institutions. Community groups are too small to solve every societal problem, but they are a good size to sponsor small groups of refugees. Intentionally or not, the (Conservative?) federal government set up private sponsorships with the right set of constraints for community groups to address effectively, and in this circumstance Canadians have taken advantage of that. Let's hope it plays out well.