Challenging frequent flyers to help refugees become frugal flyers so they can arrive in Canada debt-free

April 21, 2016

By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun |

Getting from refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon to Canada is expensive enough, but it can cost Syrian families thousands more to get from their Canadian arrival point to where they are going to settle.

Then, a month after arrival, they start getting a bill showing how much they owe the government for those travel costs, along with a request that they start making payments as soon as possible.

Many will be saddled with $10,000 in debt upon arrival. That’s the maximum, and they must start repaying after a year. Within three years, the interest starts mounting. And if families can’t or won’t pay, the penalty is that they will never get travel documents or their citizenship.

It’s a huge burden for newcomers without jobs, many of whom are also struggling to find affordable housing, learning English, and trying to integrate into a strange culture.

But, despite intense lobbying efforts, it’s a burden that the federal government has refused to ease. The exception is the 25,000 government-assisted refugees and those who came under the blended visa office referral program who arrived after Nov. 4 as part of the Liberals’ election promise.

But for privately sponsored Syrian families and all other refugees, their money worries begin the moment they land. Unless, of course, they can fly for free.

How? Get frequent flyers to donate their airline rewards points to refugees.

It’s an idea that came to Richard Kurland in the middle of a boring meeting about something he can’t remember. Kurland is an immigration lawyer and a volunteer with the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project, a collaboration between Vancouver’s Temple Shalom and the Anglican diocese of New Westminster.

The idea isn’t unique, as Kurland soon found. In 2006, Aeroplan — Air Canada’s loyalty rewards program — established its Beyond Miles program. The first charity was Engineers Without Borders. Now, there are more than 250 charities listed on Aeroplan’s website — from Lifeline Syria to War Child Canada to the David Suzuki Foundation to the dog rescue group, Sponsor a Boxer.

Since it was listed three weeks ago, Kurland’s group has collected nearly 29,000 miles. Its own two sponsored families — a family of four (five if they don’t arrive in May before the baby is born) and a couple — will be the first recipients, if all goes well.

After that, other private sponsorship groups will be invited to register their families for help.

He noted that some refugees, such as the two families of eight being sponsored by a group in Haida Gwaii, are looking at close to $400 per person just to get from Vancouver to the northern B.C. community.

If there are more needs than points, Kurland said, “The decision will be moved up the food chain to the religious leaders.”

And while sponsorship groups often get little notice prior to their families’ arrival, Kurland said they can game the system a bit if they book tickets in advance. Then, even if the dates change, the $100 penalty is still less than a full-fare or even economy ticket.

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