‘We’re desperately trying to get them out’: Church group struggles to bring Syrian refugees to Canada

WATCH ABOVE: A Toronto church group hoping to sponsor a refugee family is calling the fact that the government is telling them to wait 12 months to get into Canada "inhumane." They say no one will tell them why it is taking so long. Christina Stevens reports.

TORONTO — A Toronto church group has raised $35,000 to help a family of Syrian refugees come to Canada. After initially approving the family in August, they were told by the federal government earlier this month that the family would not be able to enter the country for another year.

Christopher White, senior minister at Fairlawn Avenue United Church, said the family, who have not been identified due to privacy and safety concerns, have faced unimaginable tragedy since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011.

White said the father of two eight-year-old twin girls and a 21-year-old woman, and husband to their mother, was a non-combatant who was killed in front of them by a sniper when he was returning home to bring bread to the family in Syria.

READ MORE: Refugee crisis: What can you do to help?

The church group connected with the family, who now live as refugees in Beirut, in January after working with Anglican United Refugee Alliance, which helped initiate the process of getting them to Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

“They’ve experienced two years of civil war in Syria, the murder of their father and husband and then they’ve been refugees in Lebanon for the past two and a half years, which is why we’re desperately trying to get them out,” he said, adding that Citizenship and Immigration Canada approved them to come to Canada in August.

“We have worked really hard and I want to give full credit to this community. We’ve raised $35,000 and we have a wonderful team of volunteers who are ready and willing and just so excited to be able to welcome this family and integrate them into Canadian society.”

White said that after the initial approval, the church group was told by their MP and Finance Minister Joe Oliver last week that it would take an additional 12 months before the family could come to Canada and they have received little information as to why this was the case. He said he had not heard back from Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office after calling last week.

“So we have been asking why, and we’re not hearing an answer unfortunately,” he said.

“We don’t believe that 12 months is acceptable. This is a family that’s under enormous pressure, has suffered greatly and we think would be a gift to this country and so we’re trying to understand why is it that it is taking so long and what can we do to speed this process up.”

Story continues below advertisement

White said the family’s lives are in danger on a daily basis and there is little the church group can do to help.

“They are at risk, this is a very risky situation and we don’t want more pressure put on this family,” he said.

“They’ve been approved by the Canadian government, the file is sitting in the Embassy in Beirut, we are simply access that the process be facilitated and expedited so we can get this family here.”

Oliver said in a statement that he could not comment on the specifics of the case, but highlighted the government’s efforts to help refugees.

“Our government has announced sensible, balanced measures to speed up the processing of refugees, including devoting extra staff and additional resources,” he said.

“We have reduced processing times by 50 per cent in the last year for Syrian refugees. Our Government is following a balanced, compassionate approach while safeguarding Canadians.”

Alexander and Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

READ MORE: Federal government eases rules on Syrian refugee claims

Immigration lawyer Sherif Ashamalla said that in his experience refugees from Beirut will typically face up to a year of additional waiting because they still have to go through two more steps after approval: a medical check and police check.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s just backlogs. The number of files they have — Beirut is dealing with Iraqis and Syrians that are there. Lebanon has a million refugees,” he said. “There’s a backlog; I don’t know how big or long it is.”

Ashamalla said he believes the issue comes down to resources, in addition to the fact that applications need to be scrutinized carefully to ensure they are in fact genuine.

“I think if there was less of a backlog or more resources to clear that backlog, people can be interviewed much quicker,” he said, adding that the embassies are “overwhelmed.”

“People are definitely experiencing hardship in Beirut — many of them can’t work and in Beirut many things are extremely expensive for refugees.”

White said the the group was frustrated and “puzzled” over the situation, adding that they need the federal government to start expediting cases like this in order to make a difference.

“We totally understand the need for proper processes to be followed. What we are asking however is that these processes be done in a humane and quick way and that we are asking the government to really come to the table to bring the resources, not only for our family but for all those other families that are in the pipeline,” he said.

“We are responding and now we need the government to make sure that this family comes here safely and quickly.”

Story continues below advertisement

With files from Christina Stevens