Published 9 April 2014 in the Globe and Mail
In the Jeremaneh district of Damascus in 2006, attendance at Sunday Catholic mass services doubled as Iraqi faithful fled to seek refuge from a violent sectarian conflict at home.
Zuhair Gorgoes was an English teacher in Iraq, and his family was comfortable, but the war in Baghdad forced them into Syria.
“I received a letter from extremists telling me that they would kill my daughters,” Mr. Gorgoes said, explaining the desperate reasons for his family’s first flight.
“Because I was an English teacher, they said I was spreading Western ideas. … In my town, they exploded six churches in one day.”
Three years later, with Syria on the cusp of similar strife, Mr. Gorgoes and his family sought comfort once again, this time in Surrey, B.C., with the help of a local Catholic priest.
Mr. Gorgoes had a lucky connection: The priest was his nephew, Rev. Sarmad Biloues, who has been working to resettle hundreds of Iraqi refugees in B.C. with private sponsorships organized through the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Rev. Biloues, himself a refugee of the Iraq war who arrived in Canada via Syria in 2005, is now focusing on bringing members of Syria’s minority Christian population to Canada.
Despite promises of settling 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, Rev. Biloues said Ottawa has not been a willing partner.
“Our government has not been serious about bringing them here. They speak nice words, but in reality they are not bringing anyone here,” he said.
“It is a very difficult situation for them, and Canada is not supporting refugees like it used to.”
Rev. Biloues said many families in his parish would privately sponsor Syrian refugees.
But delays at the case processing office in Winnipeg and then with visa offices abroad mean it is unlikely any will arrive by the end of the year, Rev. Biloues and other refugee advocates say.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugee, said the two-stage processing scheme is cumbersome.
“The first stage is now in Winnipeg, where the government decided to centralize the processing of sponsorship applications. This was supposed to make it more efficient, but in practice it has made it much longer.”
The second stage is at the visa offices abroad.
“The latest processing times in Amman are 25 months, in Beirut 22 months, and Cairo 42 months,” said Ms. Dench. “When you look at those processing times, it’s clear that Minister [Jason] Kenny’s announcement last year that these Syrians are going to arrive by the end of 2014 is not going to happen.”
In July, 2013, a month after the United Nations asked the international community to accept Syrian refugees, Canada committed to take 1,300 by the end of 2014; of that number, 200 would be sponsored by the government and the other 1,100 privately.
“The government made this announcement and this pledge on behalf of private sponsors without consulting with the private sponsors,” Ms. Dench said. “If your goal is to ensure that these number of refugees arrive, then surely the first thing you do is to consult with the sponsors and say how can we make it happen.”
Alexis Pavlich, press secretary for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, said Canada is still on track to resettling 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014.
“We have been a world leader in providing affected Syrians with humanitarian aid – the Prime Minister’s recent trip to the region saw Canada’s commitment rise to more than $630-million in humanitarian, development and security assistance,” Ms. Pavlich said.
Rev. Biloues lived for three years in Syria as a refugee of the Iraq war before being granted asylum in Canada. His parish in Damascus comprised both Iraqi refugees and Syrians.
It was easier for him in 2005 than it is for the people he is trying to help now, Rev. Biloues said.
“They accepted us when we were refugees there and had nothing,” he said. “We would love to bring them here, but the government will not sit down with us to discuss how we can do this.”