Salmon Arm efforts to give Syrian refugees a new home is knitting the community together in unexpected ways.
The group initiated by Deo Lutheran Church welcomed a family of five last Friday – a mom, dad and their three boys.
Deo Lutheran Pastor Erik Bjorgan is not only excited to be welcoming a family of five, he is surprised and thrilled by the way his volunteer group came together.
“We could have told ourselves two stories – we’re too small, too old and too busy, or we could take a more accurate stock of what we could do,” he says of initial reticence to take on a refugee family and the decision to invite members from the community at large.
“We figured there must be people in the community with it in their hearts to do something, but not knowing where to go with it.”
Bjorgan says a half-hour before an initial 1 p.m. meeting, six anxious members of the church were milling around wondering if anyone would show up.
“By 1:30, we had 37 people and $7,000 in pledges before they left the room,” he said. “Another 28 volunteers showed up in the middle of a fierce snowstorm.”
Bjorgan says the 75 members of the support group, two-thirds of whom have no affiliation with the church, raised over $13,000 in a little more than six weeks.
The structure of the group is based on a blend of congregation and non-church members, without the church calling all the shots.
“It’s been effortless and delightful as far as navigating the issues,” he says, lauding what he calls the “cross-pollination” of groups that wouldn’t normally be working together and the opportunity to explore similarities. “For us as a congregation, we have had insight that every time we have tried to engage the neighbourhood most of the anxiety is in regard to the church.”
When there isn’t an agenda, when it’s simply to work in a collaborative way, Bjorgan says the results are astonishing.
Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition co-founder Brian Ayotte agrees.
“It’s great that we’re salvaging lives, but I think it’s amazing what it’s doing with churches depending on each other,” he says, noting two fundraising dinners at St. Joe’s were attended by many non-parish members. “It’s not just about the churches, it’s the whole community and it’s lovely.”
Already planning for two families, Ayotte says his church family has agreed to help the Shuswap Community Church in order to provide a happy ending to a “lovely story.”
The mother of the family brought to Salmon Arm by Shuswap Community Church has been in contact with her sister in a Turkish refugee camp pretty much on a daily basis via Skype.
When her sister announced she, her husband and young child were coming to Canada, pleas were made on behalf of both families to change the destination from Winnipeg to Salmon Arm.
“The church was worried about the family so they got in touch with us,” Ayotte says. “We got notice their application is completed and they’re travel ready, so hopefully they’ll arrive within the week.”
Ayotte says St. Joseph’s Catholic Church currently has accommodation available for a refugee family because their private application through a Franciscan priest in Beirut is going to take a long time.
And the family coming under the federal government’s Blended Visa Office-Referred Program should arrive within the next four to six weeks, about the same as the First United Church-sponsored family arrives.
“This is not a one-time deal; we want to keep doing this,”Ayotte says.
For more on lobbying efforts to bring refugee families to Salmon Arm, see page A10.