Communities hosting refugees need help and a ‘more positive narrative’

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The Embassy of Canada to the Holy See is hosting a two-day workshop at the Vatican that aims to support local communities who sponsor refugees, while sharing expertise from community sponsorship programs in the United States, Britain , Germany and Italy.

By Devin Watkins

The Embassy of Canada to the Holy See partnered with the International Catholic Migration Commission, as well as the embassies of Britain, the United States, Germany and Italy, to organize a workshop on welcoming refugees.

The two-day event kicked off on Monday and explored the results of a program created by the Canadian government to help local communities welcome people who have fled conflict and other challenges. Over 300,000 refugees have been assisted by the Community Sponsorship Program in their integration into local communities in various parts of Canada since its inception in 1979.

Strengthen communities

According to Ms. Angele Tissot of the Canadian Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the event hopes to stimulate similar initiatives in other countries, while strengthening the host communities so that they become places of life. more welcoming to refugees.

During a press briefing before the event, she noted that awareness of the need to integrate refugees into local communities came after the mass exodus of “Vietnamese boat people”, a migratory phenomenon that reached its peak in the late 1970s after the Vietnam War. . More recently, the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine have pushed the issue of refugee settlement to the top of the political priority list.

Msgr. Bob Vitillo, secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission, presented the Canadian program as a potential model for European Union states as they seek long-term solutions to integrate refugees. The American-born priest said similar programs could be implemented even in other parts of the world beyond Western countries.

Canada’s initiative focuses primarily on large cities, but in Europe it has often been more rural areas that have shown the greatest willingness to welcome refugees, especially given the declining population of small towns.

In reference to Pope Francis, Msgr. Vitillo said the integration of refugees is a two-way street, as those who welcome and those who are welcomed offer each other cultural and economic enrichment.

Making host countries “a home”

During the workshop, an international group of panelists shared their experiences in community sponsorship programs.

Prof. Fabio Baggio, Undersecretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, highlighted the growing involvement of the Church in supporting the journey of refugees as they seek to make their adopted country their “home”. He noted Pope Francis’ frequent appeals to countries to help refugees, and his frequent appeal to communities to “welcome, accompany, support and integrate” people who have fled their country of origin.

What works well?

Anna Khrystych escaped from her home in central Ukraine after the Russian invasion on February 24, with her 2 children. She currently resides in a Catholic parish in Rome.

Speaking at Monday’s workshop, Anna praised the welcome she received in Rome, which was coordinated by Caritas. She mentioned in particular the help of a psychiatrist to help her and her children adjust, as well as the experience of a summer camp that her 2 children recently attended.

However, Anna said, her current concern is the possibility of taking up employment as a refugee living in Italy.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the United States has launched a community sponsorship program – Uniting for Ukraine – which has so far brought more than 59,000 Ukrainians to the United States, according to William Canny, executive director of the offices of Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Bishops’ Conference (USCCB).

Canny said more than 125,000 groups have offered their willingness to take in Ukrainian refugees, but noted that data is sparse on the demographic makeup of these groups. “It’s likely that most are Ukrainian Americans hosting Ukrainians,” he said, “and the jury is still out on the results of this program in the United States.”

Germany was also represented at the workshop by Andreas Hollstein, the former mayor of Altena in the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia.

He stressed the need for communities to create networks to welcome refugees. No one can do it alone, he said, but anything is possible with the right support.

The former German mayor survived a 2017 knife attack by a disgruntled resident who resented a program he set up to take in refugees.

What are the challenges of community sponsorship?

Despite the success of many community sponsorship programs, they also face a host of challenges, many of which relate to long-term sustainability.

Sometimes the bureaucratic aspect of the resettlement process becomes ‘clumsy’, as refugees have to undergo extensive interviews and deal with various government agencies.

“The risk is that the impetus will be taken away from compassion.”

Another challenge, according to Mark Wiggin, director of Caritas for the UK Diocese of Salford, is that official resettlement programs “pale in comparison” to the massive numbers of refugees who need help to integrate into communities there. ‘welcome.

Community sponsorship programs also come with significant financial costs, requiring significant fundraising efforts and significant investments.

“Such programs need to ensure a long-term commitment, which requires investment, enabling professionalism in order to help refugees well,” Mr Wiggin said.

Accompany volunteers in their charitable desire

In recent years, Italy has implemented the Humanitarian Corridors initiative in coordination with the Community of Sant’Egidio and other religious institutions.

According to Cecilia Pani, who coordinates the program for Sant’Egidio, burnout also poses a huge challenge, saying assistance fatigue can arise when host families fail to meet refugees’ expectations, or vice versa. .

In response, she said, umbrella organizations are needed to monitor the experience of hosting refugees, as well as rapid support for host families at risk of burnout.

Communities are filled with people of immense goodwill, and their charitable desire should not be wasted.

‘Volunteers need to be taken as they are,’ Mr Wiggin said, ‘but they need help in the form of a local network of mental health professionals who understand the situation of volunteers.’

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