B.C. non-profit that re-houses refugees receiving flood of support

September 19, 2015

By Cheryl Chan, the Province |

Seyar Zafar fled Afghanistan in 2007, leaving behind the only life he knew to seek a safe haven in Canada.

It was a difficult adjustment for Zafar, who struggled to reconcile his previous high-ranking position in government and health-care to being a stateless refugee dependent on the goodwill of others.

He and his family of nine, including his mother and two sisters, crammed in a two-bedroom apartment. At the time, Zafar was the only one who could speak English.

“I had to start everything again from zero with a very stressful situation,” said Zafar, now a Canadian citizen who had completed a masters degree in human security and peacebuilding from Royal Roads University.

“To live the reality of this life was a big change to accept and get adapted with.”

Help for the Zafar family came in the form of Journey Home Community Association, a Burnaby non-profit which offers assistance with housing and resettlement services to claimant refugees.

The organization started in 2005 after executive director James Grunau learned about the pressing need of claimant refugees in Metro Vancouver.

Claimant refugees — refugees who arrive in Canada fleeing persecution from their home countries — receive less supports than convention claimants, despite numbering more than both government- and privately-sponsored refugees combined.

According to a 2014 report by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., in 2012 there were 5,412 government-sponsored refugees and 4,212 privately-sponsored refugees compared to 13,432 refugee claimants and their dependents.

The first families helped by Journey Home were a Mexican family of four, and a family of four from Afghanistan.

“We were learning refugee work on the fly,” Grunau said of those early days.

Ten years later, Journey Home operates two Welcome Houses, each with two to three bedrooms for newly-arrived refugees. It also offers transitional housing, resettlement assistance, and, equally importantly, friendships and a social network.

It has helped about 400 refugees from almost 40 countries, including 10 families from the MV Sun Sea, which arrived in B.C. in 2010 with 492 Sri Lankan migrants. Some of its clients are highly-educated individuals, while others come from impoverished backgrounds fleeing strife and violence. Some people were persecuted for their religious or political beliefs, others for their ethnicity.

“They’re ordinary folks who have hopes for a safe and secure environment and a place for their children,” Grunau said Saturday, hours before Journey Home’s 10-year anniversary celebration at one of its two Welcome Houses.

The organization, which has three staff members and operates largely through volunteers, donations and grants, takes in about a dozen families a year.

Families are connected to Journey Home through a Red Cross-run program called First Contact, which refers asylum-seekers needing help to support organizations.

There has been a striking decrease in asylum-seekers coming to Canada, noted Grunau, due to tighter refugee and immigration policies that came into effect in 2012.

But the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, the toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after a boat full of Syrian refugees capsized on its way to Greece, has raised awareness in Canada of an international crisis that has been playing out on the other side of the world for years. In the aftermath of Kurdi’s death, there has been increased interest from churches and individuals contacting his organization asking how it can help, said Grunau.

“We’re finding Canadians are responding and coming on board.”


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