Janet's sobs were palpable. Her body seemed wrapped in excruciating pain. Sitting beside her, Sr. Barbara gently put her arm around Janet's shoulders. Separated from her children during the genocide in Rwanda, Janet had been forced to flee the country, leaving her five children behind.
Janet heard the “nitty gritty” aspects of what it would take to be reunited with her children: $550 per adult processing fee and then an additional $490 once landed to apply to be a permanent resident, as well $150 for those under 22 years of age, then the cost of DNA testing for each child to prove parenthood, the cost of each child's medical exam, and the cost of repayment of government sponsored travel to Canada. Her sobs became louder and louder.
Consultation with agencies working with refugees and immigrants revealed that there was a tremendous need of assistance for newcomers like Janet. As a result, refugees dealing with this first stage of "adjustment" were earmarked as the target population for the ministry of Becoming Neighbours.
Father Peter McKenna, SCJ was hired as the first Ministry Director in April of 2006. In September 2007, Becoming Neighbours, was established as a permanent Joint Apostolic Ministry.
PRESENCE, PRAYER and SOLIDARITY are the underpinnings of Becoming Neighbours. It is a companion program in which refugees, during their initial adjustment to Canadian society, are matched with members of religious congregations, their associates and friends. Becoming Neighbours promotes two-way cultural enrichment and sharing while assisting refugees to become active participating members of the community. It also provides opportunities for formation through educational in-service and theological reflection. The Board of Directors, Advisory Committee and staff have been structured to reflect women and men working collaboratively in mission.
Companions who befriend commit themselves to meeting with a refugee to help develop the skills necessary for living in a new culture. Other companions include those who coordinate theological reflection sessions, those involved in administration, those who network with others to address immigration inequities, those involved in transportation, those who make a commitment to pray for refugees, and those involved as members of the Becoming Neighbours Board of Directors.
As of April 2018, 244 refugees have been matched with companions who commit themselves to accompany the newcomer in developing the skills necessary for living in a new culture. As well, there are 312 prayer partners who daily present to God the hopes, the dreams and needs of the newcomer with whom they are matched.
We interviewed Fr. Peter about his time at Becoming Neighbours:
How did you come to work at Becoming Neighbours? Did you have prior experience ministering to migrants or refugees?
When I was a scholastic in the late 1970s, I taught ESL to factory workers in Toronto. Then in 1980-1982, I worked in Times Square with street kids, some of whom were in the United States with no documentation and had been picked up by pimps. From 1982 – 1990, I worked with street people in Halifax, Nova Scotia, some of whom were migrants.
In 2004, on a sabbatical, I was living in a bachelor unit in a complex of three apartment towers each with 20 floors. It was like a mini city within a city: 1/3 of the people were seniors, 1/3 were university students and 1/3 were recently arrived immigrants and refugees. One of the neighbours on my floor died, and I sent a flyer around our floor inviting our neighbours to come and share stories about their encounters with this gentleman, named Clyde, who had lived in the building for 15 years. Over 20 people showed up, and not only did they share moving stories about Clyde, but they began to vent some of their frustrations about living in the building.
The landlord raised the rent every year beyond the municipal board levels, and we discovered that he was gradually converting the apartments into condos, charging the costs to do so to the present tenants, many of whom could not afford to complain. Three of us delivered a flyer to the 200 units in our building sharing our perception of what was happening and how our rights as tenants were being violated. We then went door to door asking each tenant for a $10 donation by which we would hire a lawyer to present our situation to the Ontario Municipal Board which controls rents in Ontario. Most tenants offered us considerably more and were more than willing to volunteer their time to this endeavour. This led to us holding focus groups on each floor of the building to discuss what they liked about living there and what could be improved.
The time of my sabbatical was coming to a close so I met with our Regional Superior to explore future ministries. He suggested that I stay put and bring a gospel perspective to the tenants and to what was happening with their lives. Then I happened to read of this new joint apostolic ministry. It was a vision that I could readily identify with: women and men religious working collaboratively to respond to the unmet needs of refugees. I applied and here I am today.
What has been your greatest learning from this ministry?
- The importance of building upon peoples’ potential and strengths
- Refugees’ deep and profound faith in God which offers hope in what they are experiencing
- How humbling and moving it has been to be welcomed into their lives and to receive this gift of who they are
- Moments marked by encounter, mutual conversion and new possibilities, in which we acted as a bridge between the culture of the other and the community in which the refugees have found themselves.
…At times I just do not understand how people can claim to be Christians and not respond to what refugees are experiencing. We have been so blessed and live in a culture of abundance yet we are consumed by a culture of fear.
What is your greatest joy and biggest frustration or challenge with the work?
The joy is being privileged and blessed to be with refugees in key moments of birth to death and everything in between. The greatest challenge has been to be present to refugees when they receive the outcomes of their hearing at the Refugee Court that they are to be deported. One of the challenges is that at times I just do not understand how people can claim to be Christians and not respond to what refugees are experiencing. We have been so blessed and live in a culture of abundance yet we are consumed by a culture of fear.
As a Canadian, what do you think about what is happening in the U.S and the rest of the world in terms of the rise of anti-immigration sentiment, and do you have any fears about the same trends in Canada?
As a Canadian I do not believe I can comment on what is happening in the United States. All I can comment about is what is happening in Canada, but yes, the same trends are emerging here.
How has your work on the North American Migration Commission impacted your thinking on this issue?
What I appreciate most about working with NAMC is the passion of the members of the committee. This passion is unleashed each and every time we spend time with a refugee or with someone living with no documentation. What was especially moving was being with Sr. Norma. We seem to function as “people of the head”, but in reality we really are “Dehonians with open heart and mind.”
With the work of NAMC, I am reminded that as a single Dehonian, yes we can make a difference, but it is together as North American Dehonians that we can have a collective presence and voice and can join with others to build the reign of God in souls and society. The social dimension of our charism is not an appendix to our charism. It is a constitutive part of who we are as Dehonians and traces of it is to be found in every ministry that each and every SCJ undertakes. One of our challenges is to make it more explicit.
…As a single Dehonian, yes we can make a difference, but it is together as North American Dehonians that we can have a collective presence and voice and can join with others to build the reign of God in souls and society.
Using the Catholic Social Teaching Methodology of “See, Judge, Act” (or as PJ McGuire once said “see, love, serve”) we can analyse and educate each other and collectively as Dehonians move to action by addressing the immigration structures that strip away the dignity of refugees.