Bringing a refugee family to Revelstoke: Playing God?


By Rana Nelson

Choosing a Syrian refugee family to come to Revelstoke felt like playing God. Who are we to say, “No, not you – or you or you or you,” and “Yes, you,”?

As many readers know, Revelstoke for Refugees (RFR) is raising money to bring a refugee family to Revelstoke. Currently at $46,000, we had raised enough a few weeks ago to begin the application process. And so the Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) we have been working with sent us a list of 33 refugee families near Mafraq, Jordan, a tiny percentage of the 1,000,000 refugees in that country.

Refugee families on lists sent to sponsoring groups have been vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and we understand that those on the list we received are prepared to relocate to Canada. Two weeks ago, seven of us gathered at the Alliance Church, with the list of families up on the big screen in the sanctuary, to make the difficult and emotional decision of which family to choose.

Photos of all the family members, the age of the father (usually the principal applicant) and the children, and a short description of each family and the circumstances preceding their arrival in Jordan comprised the information for each family. The images looked like typical passport photos, with many of the adults unsmiling. We could tell the photos had been scanned into the document, because many had crease marks or were otherwise damaged. They were relatively recent, as the ages given for the children seemed fairly close to how old they looked.

As for the information, one father indicated: “I tried to smuggle [my family in a truck] three times that…met with failure because of the shooting towards us [but] the fourth trial was successful…. After two months I followed them to Jordan.”

Another father stated, “[W]e were living peacefully [in a town near the Jordanian border when] suddenly…tanks started to shoot from abroad, barrels started to fall over our houses…. I rushed inside the house, [my family was] without any injury, so we packed our luggage, rented a car [and] drove into Jordan.”

The blurbs also listed health concerns that needed to be addressed, and the father’s education and work experience, but not the mother’s. We are assuming many or most of the mothers’ main occupation is caring for their children. Some of the families included a grandmother, and some families had adult children.

We decided that our main criteria would be a family with between three and six young children and a father who had work experience that would fit with Revelstoke’s employment options. For example, many men listed experience in farming, but we centered on those who listed construction, trades, and transportation.

One man gave his employment history as follows: “I worked in construction for more than 10 years as a worker and coordinator [and] I owned a vegetable store for 2 years.” Laura Stovel, an RFR group member who has travelled extensively in developing countries, noted that a “vegetable store” in such areas can range from a simple kiosk to a larger establishment.  Another man stated, “I [was] a truck driver for 2 years, a bus driver for 3 years, a house painter for 4 years.”

We also looked for adaptability – at least as far as that could be determined. For instance, we decided not to choose the family where the father had worked as a plant manager for many years, because such jobs are limited in Revelstoke and we felt that he may not easily adapt to other professions. (However, if leaving your regular life because your town is being bombed and travelling with your family to a refugee camp isn’t being adaptable, I don’t know what is.)

We also considered a family’s health issues, and the possibility of providing that care in Revelstoke. For instance, we could address a young girl’s calcium deficiency or a toddler’s need for eyeglasses, but not a woman’s requirement for dialysis. And the “daughter [who] needs plastic surgery for her burn scars” might be better helped in a larger centre, where frequent travel would not be necessary. We do know that all the refugees will likely need trauma counselling.

We chose the above criteria because of the many opportunities Revelstoke offers young children, and because we wanted to help as large a family as possible, taking into account our group’s ability to support them for the year and the likelihood of the father finding work that would sustain his family. Again, we are assuming the mother will be the main caregiver, but she might also (need to) work.

All of the families listed Arabic as their main language, and none indicated that they spoke English (or any other language). However, according to Aron Habtemichael, our SAH representative, in his experience, “most families have some level of English.” With ESL training being provided to some RFR members by Revelstoke’s Settlement Services at Okanagan College, we will be helping the family learn or improve their English.

With sad-eyed, stern, and smiling parents; dimpled, serious, and grinning girls; solemn, cheerful, and glowering boys; and of course chubby-cheeked babies flashing one after another on the screen, it was hard to keep the families straight, even though we were all taking notes. Occasionally, the dialogue among the group went something like this: “Family 27 has the five children, the father who was a truck driver, and the mother who’s pregnant, right?” “No, that was Family 14, and they have four children.” “Wait. Can we go back to Family 32?”

After about an hour, we had narrowed our choices down to five. We had decided to send all five choices to the SAH, as other sponsor groups were also choosing families from this list. In the event that our top family had already been chosen, we wanted to indicate other options. After a break for tea in the church kitchen, we reassembled in the sanctuary to rank the families from one to five.

Each of us ranked the families silently, save for the occasional comment, sigh, or tears (from me). I had hard copies of the information for each family spread out on chairs in front of me, and I struggled to place one family ahead of another. The pictures affected me greatly, and although I tried not to be influenced by them, it’s human nature to assess a person based on appearance.

For me, the hardest part of not choosing a family was – is – not knowing whether they will be okay. However, regardless of which family arrives in Revelstoke, we are helping them make a new life. And that’s not playing God, it’s just loving your neighbours.

Note: As of this posting date, we still haven’t heard which family will be coming. AND WE STILL NEED A HOUSE FOR THEM! If you have or know of a (preferably) two- or three-bedroom house that the family can rent for a reasonable price, or have leads on other suitable accommodation, please contact Alan Mason at Revelstoke for Refugees thanks all the individuals, organizations, and businesses who have donated to this initiative so far. Factoring in the government’s contribution, we are only $10,000 away from our goal! If you would like to donate, visit the Revelstoke Credit Union or the Visitor Info Centre, or donate online at Tax receipts are issued for donations over $20.

Rana Nelson is the chairwoman of the Revelstoke for Refugees Committee.