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Royal Treatment for Refugees

Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada rolls out the red carpet for fleeing Syrians.

Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) General Superintendent David Wells witnessed the plight of several Syrian refugee families while on a May 2015 trip to the Middle East.

Wells, in a meeting set up by World Assemblies of God Fellowship Executive Committee member Dikran Salbashian, and his wife, Ani, visited some refugees who had fled the turmoil in Syria. Most had lost their homes and personal belongings. Some fled to safety with just a few important documents and the clothes on their back. Many faced persecution as a result of their Christian faith, and in their desperation trusted that God would lead them to a place of refuge. Others just quickly fled with little to no faith to hold to, challenged to figure out on their own what might be next, should they survive trying times. 

The PAOC had been involved in refugee resettlement since 2003, but in these divine moments face to face with those seeking hope for a new day, Wells knew the PAOC must respond at a deeper level. Meeting with the PAOC’s Mission Canada team directly involved in resettlement work, Wells, who is vice president of the WAGF and has been Canadian AG general superintendent since 2008, led a denominational effort to start identifying and processing families in need right away.

In the past two years, 56 Syrian and Iraqi individuals representing 22 families have been welcomed to Canada through PAOC congregations. An additional 33 Syrian and Iraqi individuals (15 families) have been matched with PAOC churches and are in the process of resettlement thanks to the efforts of the Salbashians, who have been helping refugees complete necessary paperwork.

The average processing time is 12-15 months once a refugee resettlement application has been filed with Canadian immigration authorities.

Salbashian notes that many of the refugees have been waiting to escape for years.

“Most are very poor and depend on help from organizations to provide for basic staples for their daily livelihood,” Salbashian says.

Once a church makes the commitment to resettle a family and is approved to continue in the process, the congregation receives names, ages, and a few details concerning the family.

For the refugee family, acceptance means stepping into the unknown, moving across the globe, and possibly leaving other family members behind. In the interim, the church identifies a place for the refugees to live when they arrive and begins collecting necessary household possessions. Fundraising teams ensure that the expenses of the family are paid for the first year.

Salbashian says the sponsored refugees have been treated royally by their Canadian hosts, with some receiving a welcoming parade from hundreds of well-wishers. 

 “Many sent us pictures of how they were met at their airport, the houses where they live, the cars that were gifted to them, the clothes and toys given to their kids,” Salbashian says. “Many talked about the separate bedrooms for each member of the family when before they had been sleeping on mattresses on the floor.”

Russ Stare, pastor of Elim Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, says the congregation made sure to set the minds of the new arrivals at ease.

“Their fears were allayed by the personal response from people at our church introducing them to our city and accepting them into their homes for special occasions and for simple social events, including coffee and suppers on various occasions,” Stare says. “Their immediate and long-term physical needs were fully met.”

The immigrants rapidly assimilated into the life of the church.

“The entire family has engaged into the activities of our church, not only attending but serving in the weekly ministry,” Stare says. “They have definitely received and are living out the gospel in their daily lives.”

Glad Tidings Church in Burlington, Ontario, resettled an extended family of 11 as its first Syrian refugee commitment.

“They came with some uncertainties and fears, knowing they needed to trust God,” says Pastor Pat Klein. “When we explained to them that their needs would be covered for their entire first year in Canada, they were extremely appreciative.”

Klein says members of the church paid for the vast majority of resources needed, including monthly rent, furniture, and a used car.  

While a few exiles arrive speaking fluent English, most must attend English as a second language classes in order to fully assimilate. Some also learn via online courses or through a private tutor. Those who learn English early in the transition are most likely to find and keep employment for the long term. Children are apt to grasp the language quicker than the elderly. Resettlement team members assist with résumé writing and accompany the new settler to a job interview. Within 12 months, the goal is to have the transplanted family self-sufficient. Refugees have been hired for custodial work, serving and cooking in restaurants, hairdressing, in-home care, and as mechanics.

Salbashian commends the PAOC for stepping up to meet the needs of the immigrants among them.

“Our joy is indescribable when we hear and see how these refugees who have lost everything are now in a safe place,” Salbashian says. “Our brothers and sisters in the West are not just praying for us from a safe distance, but are demonstrating their faith with their practical works!”

The PAOC, based in Mississauga, Ontario, is the largest evangelical denomination in Canada, with approximately 239,000 adherents and 1,074 churches.

In the past, the U.S. Assemblies of God has been involved in caring for and demanding religious liberties for Syrian refugees. Earlier this year, U.S. AG General Superintendent George O. Wood issued a response to President’s Trump’s executive order on immigration.