Joseph Shabason participates in the Canadian Integration Program to share the privileges he received from growing up in Canada. Photo: Anna Aigrot


New perspectives on migration from Canada

In search of positive perspectives and ideas, at a time when the debate about refugee reception and integration is getting darker, we sought across the Atlantic to Canada to learn more about the country's "Privately Sponsored Refugees" (PSR) program. During two weeks in Canada, we met with representatives from government actors, activists and a total of 15 private sponsors.

The Canadian Privately Sponsored Refugees Program (PSR), a system developed in connection with many Vietnamese refugees seeking refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War. PSR is based on private individuals and civil society organizations taking personal responsibility for the reception of a newly arrived person or family. This is reflected in the fact that for a year, people support new arrivals with everything they may need, either on their own or with the help of humanitarian groups and religious communities. It is important to keep in mind that Canada is in a special situation because its geographical location makes it difficult for refugees to get there. Canada is also a very young country and is colored by the fact that its population is largely made up of people who emigrated there. Although the country is unique in many ways, there is much to be gained from the Canadian approach.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes migrants to their new country. Photo: Twitter

The benefits of the PSR program are many, especially from an integration perspective. During an interview with the Canadian Migration Board at their headquarters in Ottawa, we learn that the refugees who receive private sponsors integrate more quickly into Canadian society. This has a lot to do with them learning English and finding a job in a shorter time.

- Through this program, individuals can decide on their own to receive people on the run, which creates political support and will from the Canadian people. The PSR program has been around for over 40 years and has contributed to creating a welcoming society. At the same time, it is important to be clear that things can go wrong sometimes and becoming a private sponsor is a big commitment, says Laura Mcleod, analyst at Refugee Affairs Branch.

One of those who decided to become a private sponsor is Joseph Shabason, a young touring musician who has never before been involved in societal issues. We meet him in his lush garden on the outskirts of Toronto. Like many others, he felt in the autumn of 2015 that something had to be done to help people on the run.

- The PSR program became a way for me to share the privileges I got from growing up in Canada, says Shabason.

He describes that the role of private sponsor mainly consists of making it easier for the newly arrived family to navigate the Canadian social system. For example, it can be to help enroll the children in school and find housing.

- It becomes incredibly much easier to get into a community when you have a group of 12 people with a wide network of contacts who want you to succeed, who want to help you and simply cheer on you, says Joseph. At the same time, he emphasizes that it is very important to enter with the right attitude and expectations when sponsoring a family and you as a sponsor are aware that you do not act as the newcomer's "savior" or expect to become best friends.

For Patricia Chartier, the program became a way for her to get rid of prejudice. Photo: Anna Aigrot

On the outskirts of eastern Toronto, we meet Patricia Chartier, a middle-aged woman who is also positive about the PSR program. Chartier says this is one of the best things she has done in her life.

- For me, PSR became a way to get rid of prejudices about Muslims that I as a progressive activist never admitted to carrying.

- I feel that I have a moral obligation to help, says Mariam Elzeiny. Photo: Anna Aigrot

There are also many students who choose to get involved with newcomers as private sponsors. One of them is Mariam Elzeiny, a 20-year-old student from Egypt who is currently studying in Toronto.

- I heard about a sponsor group at the university that needed a translator. As I had previously volunteered as an English teacher in Turkey, this felt like something I could contribute. I also feel that I have a moral obligation to help and I think it is great to spend time with this group, especially the person we sponsor, says Elzeiny.

The PSR program has many important dimensions and adapted to each country's individual context, it could serve as a complement to today's refugee reception. The opportunity for individual citizens to play an active role in the integration process of new arrivals could reverse the current negative trend around refugee reception and instead bring people together. Countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom are exploring the possibility of introducing similar programs and Ireland has decided to implement a PSR-based program.

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