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Closed Borders and Open Hearts: The Role of Communities in Welcoming Refugees

Sarah Roberts Blog 1 Image
A mural in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver.
June 19, 2020

Sarah Roberts is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow, working with Common Threads to evaluate refugee integration in second-tier Canadian cities, namely London and Winnipeg. Through her degree in Management at Dalhousie University, Sarah has cultivated a passion about the struggles of newcomers to Canada as well as new entrepreneurs.

This year, World Refugee Day comes at a somber time, when the majority of countries around the world have closed their borders to refugees and asylum seekers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The borders in Canada have been closed since March 20th and will remain closed until at least July 21st.

On 2020 World Refugee Day, we turn to a story that highlights how citizen support for refugees can make all the difference. 

For more than 20 years, the Hadhad family was the second largest chocolate provider for the Middle East, but at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, their factory was destroyed. In the blink of an eye, the Hadhads were forced to flee to Lebanon, where they lived for three years in a refugee camp. In 2015, Tareq Hadhad, the eldest son, was offered sponsorship to come to Canada. Not long after, he was followed by the rest of his family.

The Hadhads arrived in Canada through Private Sponsorship. In 1979, Canada was the first country in the world to introduce a private sponsorship program for refugees. The program enables Canadian residents to carry the responsibilities of resettling refugees with their own support and funding. Since its establishment, Canada’s private sponsorship program has shaped similar sponsorship initiatives in other countries as well, including Australia and the UK.

Although private sponsorship was initially introduced as a way to allow Canada to receive more refugees, it has since proved to be a successful model of integrating newcomers. Part of its success can be attributed to the engagement of community members, who support them with basic needs and emotional support throughout the process. 

Private Sponsorship also acts as a way to build connectedness and foster a sense of belonging for refugees in their communities.

“By allowing individuals to engage directly in their resettlement, Canadians are able to put themselves in the shoes of those fleeing violence and persecution and have a tremendous impact on their resettlement,” Honourable Ratna Omidvar notes. In the past 40 years, over two million Canadians have had this impact on over 300,000 refugees who have come to Canada.

For Tareq and his family, it was the community in their new home, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, that truly made them feel welcomed. After attending a potluck with chocolates in hand, the Hadhad’s were encouraged to sell at the local market and instantly became an Antigonish favourite. With the help of 60 volunteers, the Hadhads built a small wooden shed outside of their house to start producing chocolates once again. They opened Peace by Chocolate in 2016, a company that has now shipped millions of chocolates across the country and across the world. 

Tareq notes that all of his family’s success would not have been possible without the community of Antigonish: 

“The people in Antigonish were all with us. My family felt safe when they arrived in Antigonish. The first week in Antigonish erased three years of suffering in the Middle East.” 

Although Canada has been a global trailblazer in private sponsorship, it’s the benevolence of local residents that’s at the heart of the program. At a time where many borders are still closed for refugees around the world, it’s time that we dip our spoon deeper in our jar of generosity. It’s clear that community engagement can play a massive role in ensuring positive outcomes for refugees, so it’s time to do just that. We as individuals can engage in the community and provide support for refugees like Antigonish did for the Hadhads. By educating ourselves, supporting our local initiatives and engaging in allyship for refugees, we can be more hospitable receivers when our borders open once again. 

Learn more about current refugee issues, how to support your local organizations and how to become an ally for refugees