Evelyn Jones, ISANS Coordinator of Refugee Sponsorship, has had a year like none other. ISANS has always witnessed some interest in private sponsorship of refugees – perhaps 20 people attending an annual workshop – but nothing like the community involvement since autumn.
Intense media coverage of the Syrian crisis, in particular the photo of Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, led many Nova Scotians to form private sponsorship groups. “It was a powerful photo but people didn’t suddenly wake up; so many said, I’ve been meaning to call you,” explains Evelyn.
“I came into work the next day and the phone just rang and rang.” Both she and her colleague could no long work part time. “We were coming in earlier and earlier and leaving later and later. It didn’t really change until February when the government announced that 25,000 refugees were here.”
ISANS, as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), worked closely with 32 community groups from across Nova Scotia, 30 of which were new to refugee sponsorship. They needed support, so Evelyn and her team quickly organized information sessions. “We kept adding more. Usually you talk to a group and they come back six months later. My first group came back in six days and said we have all our money; and right behind was another group and another.”
Local Syrian families wanted to bring relatives from Syria here, but Canada could only welcome those who were in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. “This work is really hard on the heart and on the head,” says Evelyn. There are so many barriers to reuniting people with their families.” ISANS however matched more than 70 families from the local Syrian community with loved ones.
Evelyn received arrival news at all hours – even on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. “We had a fantastic team of people.” Volunteers arrived to help, including a retired manager. “She just sat there and answered the phone so I could read emails, hundreds of emails; they just kept coming.”
Evelyn, who has been at ISANS for 13 years, says she doesn’t want the good will, motivation and excitement to be lost and hopes more Syrians come, as well as those from other countries. She was delighted to welcome a Rwandan family, a sponsorship that had been in the works for three years.
“Two years ago I was at a conference, a reflection about the movement of 64,000 Vietnamese here. That was the birth of private sponsorship in Canada. I said ‘we’ll never see that again.’” She was happy to be mistaken. “Canada is at its best when we’re helping other people. The motivation ranges from Christian faith to repopulating a rural area. The fact that people were calling to help a complete stranger gives me hope.”