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How to Move Refugees Into Your Neighborhood... How to Move Refugees Into Your Neighborhood...
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How to Move Refugees Into Your Neighborhood...

by Brian Merchant

June 10, 2010

First, you have to live in Canada. Our neighbors to the north live in one of the few places in the world where citizens can take the initiative to help refugees move directly into their country. Even though the Unites States relocates more refugees every year than all other nations combined, Americans can’t choose individuals they’d like to help out. Which is why it’s a good thing Samy bumped into William.

William David Ritchie met Samy at the same place I did, at the Thai restaurant in Mae Sot where Samy works part time. He had traveled to Thailand to try to track down the family members of some Karen refugees he'd already helped resettle in Calgary. The Karen people are a persecuted ethnic minority in Myanmar, and they comprise the majority of refugees in the camp where Samy lives. Before William left for home, he offered to add Samy to the list of people he was helping to apply for resettlement in Canada.

Ritchie hails from Calgary, and has long been involved in refugee and immigration affairs. He’s studied refugee policy and law, and is an active player in refugee resettlement operations in Calgary. Basically, he’s in a way better position to help Samy than I am.

Samy put us in touch, and I’ve been keeping up the best I can with Ritchie’s progress up north via email. When I called Ritchie in Calgary for the first time one Sunday evening, the voice that answered was archetypically Canadian: helpful, kind, and soft-spoken. He told me a little more about how the process works, and how, exactly he hopes to get Samy out of Burma.

First, he tells me that he’s formed what’s called a "Group of 5" to arrange for the resettlement of the Burmese refugees, including Samy. That’s the first step in pursuing private sponsorship in Canada:  

“We decide we want to help these people, and help them settle into the country,” Ritchie says.

This Group of 5—five or more friends and colleagues working together to help—chooses individual refugees, or other  persons of humanitarian concern, and essentially sets out to prove to the federal government that they need to be resettled in Canada, and that the Group is capable of helping them do so.

“A Group of 5 is typically either a church group or a group of friends who have gotten together to help,” Ritchie says. The government requires that the group build a case for the resettlement hopefuls, and acquire admissions applications directly from the refugees. They then need to detail a settlement plan— where and how they will work and live—and prove that they can provide $10,000 for each of the refugee applicants to cover the refugees’ needs as they acclimate to the country. The amount required up front can be reduced if the group partners with an NGO or another group, such as the East Kootenay Friends of Burma, which Ritchie has teamed up with.

As I write this, Ritchie is finalizing the application for Samy and four Karen refugees—he may even be done. It’s a complex and intricate process, and he wants to make sure that it’s in top shape before they turn it in.

“We want to have all the history, applications, information on the individual, how come they had to leave their countries, the 'chickety-boo' so to speak, before we submit it to the immigration department, so they have the largest chance to be accepted.”

Once all the paperwork’s been filed, there’s still a long ways to go, however—the applications must be processed and approved. That includes a Canadian immigration official making a trip out to the refugee camps to interview the candidate—something that likely won’t happen for at least a year, Ritchie says. And hangups are prone to occur at any point along the bureaucratic pathway, just like anywhere else; which is why I’m going to keep trying to get Samy into the United States, and help Ritchie if I can—who knows? There may be some unique opportunities for cross-border cooperation. After all, the odds are still against Samy, even considering Canada’s more progressive system.

And Ritchie, well acquainted with the difficulties and frustrations inherent in this long process, keeps his head up. “I'm optimistic,” he told me, “things are moving forward.”

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