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Home away from home

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union is challenging other credit unions to join them in a new program funding refugee families for one year.

At age 17, Danny Ramadan was kicked out of the family home in Damascus, the capital of Syria, after rebelliously confessing to his ultra-conservative Muslim father that he was gay. Ramadan drifted from place to place, settling, at age 19, in Egypt, a country with a reputation for being as homophobic as Syria but with a far more liberal demi-monde. It was here that Ramadan “found a community for myself, learned what it means to be gay, to have same-sex relationships, and have hopes and dreams of living together with a partner.”

Danny with his partner Matthew at an Evening in Damascus fundraiser.

Eventually, Ramadan returned to Syria, bringing with him such queer-themed films and television series as The Birdcage, The L Word, The Vagina Monologues and Queer as Folk. His small apartment became a hang-out for members of Damascus’s LGBTQ community, who had never before seen media that confirmed the legitimacy of their own feelings, their own humanity. “It blew their minds,” says Ramadan, now 35.

Then, someone squealed to the Syrian secret police. Syria’s penal code prohibits homosexual relations, in accordance with Islamic law. It was cause for Ramadan’s arrest in May 2012. Six weeks later, he was released. Ramadan has no memory of that time in Syria’s prison system, notorious for systemic torture and murder of detainees. He does know, however, that he was “physically harmed. I have no idea what happened; my mind completely blocked it out.”

Upon his release, Ramadan was given 24 hours to exit war-torn Syria. He fled to neighbouring Lebanon. Fluent in English since 14, Ramadan got work as a translator and fixer for foreign press offices, eventually being hired as a stringer for The Washington Post, The Guardian and Foreign Policy. But he was rootless, one of thousands of Syrians desperately scratching out a living in Lebanon after fleeing his home nation. Then, a group in Vancouver, working with Rainbow Refugee, which helps LGBTQ people escape state-sponsored violence in countries around the world, sponsored Ramadan’s move to Canada. It took Rainbow two years to raise the funds to privately sponsor Ramadan’s immigration. It took Ramadan another year to adjust to life in Vancouver and the new, discombobulating culture. But within nine months, he had found a welcoming community in Vancouver’s West End and a job as coordinator of volunteers at QMUNITY resource centre. Ramadan, finally, had found a home. Today, he is newly married to Matthew, happily ensconced in Vancouver’s West End and has a growing international reputation as an award-winning author. (His first novel, The Clothesline Swing, is a striking account of growing up gay in Syria.) He is also an activist, raising $140,000 for Rainbow to sponsor more LGBTQ refugees through his annual charity event, Evening in Damascus.

Family ties sundered

Ramadan faced persecution because of his sexual orientation that not only necessitated his flight from Syria but severed relations with family members. But it is thanks to Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (535,000 members, $23 billion in assets) that Ramadan’s younger sister, Nour Ramadan, her husband Wael Alajjan and their daughter Tala — also Syrian refugees — will come to Canada under the country’s “family reunification” policy. Nour’s and her brother’s nearly two-decade-long separation will finally end.

It isn’t enough simply to qualify for family reunification; there must be funding to finance travel and living expenses for newly arrived family members. And that’s where Vancity comes in. Catherine Ludgate, Vancity’s senior manager, community investment, says that Ramadan’s reunification with his sister and her family will be funded under the credit union’s new, privately sponsored refugee program, announced in Vancouver on World Refugee Day this past June. The credit union will cover the resettlement costs for one year of Ramadan’s sister and her family. (Telus also announced it would fund one refugee family per year. The Canadian national telecommunications company will also offer government-assisted refugees in British Columbia refurbished phones, wireless access and digital support for accessing networks.)

Vancity isn’t planning to undertake this initiative on its own. It is launching a campaign to encourage 50 Canadian businesses to privately sponsor other refugee families, too. “We want credit unions to join us in this work,” says Ludgate. “It would be great if 10 of the first 50 participating businesses were credit unions. It’s in our DNA. Credit unions understand the needs of the underserved and unbanked members of our communities and we can really contribute to a conversation about how welcoming we can be as Canadians.”

The Vancity program was created in partnership with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC), an organization that the credit union has worked with for 30 years, helping new Canadians open bank accounts and learn financial literacy skills. ISSofBC selected Ramadan and his sister Nour to be Vancity’s first reunification family, based upon key criteria. The selection lens is “special needs cases,” says Chris Friesen, ISSofBC’s director, settlement services. This embraces “families with young children or medical or other needs, sexual orientation, or religious minority groups.” Ramadan and his sister ticked many of the right boxes.

Vancity is thrilled to sponsor Ramadan’s family in 2020, says Ludgate. Many staff had read Ramadan’s The Clothesline Swing (he is also a Vancity member) and “when ISSofBC recommended Danny’s family it made sense for us in a bunch of ways: it gets us talking about LGBTQ issues and social inclusion. We can invite others into the conversation about refugee settlement,” Ludgate says.

“It would be great if 10 of the first 50 participating businesses were credit unions. It’s in our DNA.” – Catherine Ludgate

In accordance with federal immigration guidelines, the cost of private sponsorship of a family of four is about $35,000 a year. Vancity will sponsor five refugee families over five years, says Ludgate, adding that the credit union’s “maximum will be $50,000 annually; this does restrict us to smaller family sizes.”

There have been nearly 60,000 Syrian refugees admitted to Canada since 2015, according to Statistics Canada. Most were government-sponsored. Due in part of an influx of 40,000 irregular refugees through unauthorized border crossings in the past several years, both public and government support for asylum seekers has diminished. In such a shifting landscape, it behooves the business community to shoulder more responsibility and especially support family reunification through private sponsorship, says Ludgate.

Corporate support needed

Friesen says that the need for corporate support of new Canadians has also risen due to Ottawa setting new targets for private- versus government-assisted refugees. Next year’s target for privately sponsored refugees is set at 20,000, while the target for government-assisted refugees is 10,000 (subject to change). Friesen disagrees with this policy, saying that government-sponsored refugees should be at least equal to, if not higher than, private-sponsorship targets.

In addition to private sponsorship, 10 Vancity employees every year will undergo ISSofBC’s volunteer training program, allowing them to work as settlement mentors, supporting the families in a variety of different ways, from language acquisition to navigating public transportation. “Our employees will work with each family to help them use the transit system, take them to the public library, introduce them to the community centre, help them learn to ride bicycles — general socialization,” says Ludgate. “It’s an in-kind contribution to the well-being of the family.”

Danny Ramadan’s sister Nour, her husband Wael and daughter Tala.; Nour and her daughter Tala.

Ludgate anticipates that their program will help create an excellent foundation for a family’s future success in Canada by reducing some of the stresses of resettlement. “Because they know their basic costs are covered, they don’t have to get into ‘survival jobs’ for that first year,” she says. “They have time to go to trauma counselling. They can get used to their new neighbours and local customs. Through practicing English they can become more confident in their surroundings. Hopefully by the end of that first year, one or both adults will be ready to go to work.”

Friesen says that the Vancity initiative is an opportunity to bring together Canadians with refugees in a “meaningful and powerful way, to build more welcoming and inclusive communities and an understanding of the plight of refugees. I’m thrilled by Vancity’s leadership on this and its outstanding corporate citizenship. I think their leadership will inspire other private-sector partners to step up and consider this.”

Currently, there are more than 70 million refugees and displaced people around the globe who’ve lost their homes through war or natural and environmental disasters. Although Vancity’s first family sponsorship is Syrian, in future other families will come from other countries in the Middle East as well as the continent of Africa. For example, Friesen says that ISSofBC looks carefully at situations where people have suffered protracted violence, such as Sudan, which has endured a humanitarian crisis since 2013, causing four million people to flee and internally displacing another two million. Vancity’s next family for 2021, Friesen says, will likely be from Africa, in order to “truly represent diversity and the global refugee crisis.”

“I’m thrilled by Vancity’s leadership on this and it’s outstanding corporate citizenship.” – Chris Friesen

The elephant in the room, of course, is the cost of housing in Vancouver. With the average median monthly rent just below $3,000 for a two-bedroom unit, shelter costs alone will eat up more than one new family’s entire yearly support. Friesen says that finding housing for new immigrants and refugees is so challenging, ISSofBC has five full-time staff whose
sole responsibility is finding housing in the Lower Mainland, an ill-defined area with a population of approximately 2.8 million that embraces about 30 municipalities, including Vancouver. “I just came out of a meeting the other day and the staff came up with housing for 40 families in the Lower Mainland, all on welfare rates. I don’t know how they did it; it boggles the mind.”

Rent banks a solution?

Housing is top of mind for Vancity, too. In order to cope with the problem of soaring rents, the credit union,
with the help of a provincial grant of $10 million to the non-profit Vancity Communication Foundation (VCF), is taking on a consultative role with existing “rent banks” across the province that provide emergency, low-cost or no-cost loans to help renters facing eviction. Still, says Ludgate, “housing is a conundrum — a real conundrum.” What Vancity would like to accomplish in the next three years, Ludgate adds, is a provincial network of rent-bank supports that would include “meeting the needs of newcomers and refugees in our community.”

Ramadan is both excited and full of trepidation about the arrival of his sister Nour, who was just 10 years of age when the family patriarch evicted him for being homosexual. Nour grew up in this deeply conservative, religious milieu and Ramadan knows his lifestyle will be part of the culture shock she will have to adjust to. “It’s not fair to expect that a woman raised in that environment instantly love her gay, out of the closet, tattoo-covered atheist brother,” Ramadan says. “It’s like asking the moon for directions.”

But DNA can bridge time, distance and cultural and political disparities. Nour, who is living in Jordan as a refugee, reached out about two years ago over Facebook to Ramadan. The pair exchanged the occasional Facebook “like” whenever there were photos posted of birthdays or events. Then, Nour began sending Ramadan photos of daughter Tala. When Ramadan asked Nour if she would like to come to Canada, she was, initially, tentative. “She didn’t know what to do. She said, ‘Does this mean we have to best friends?’ I said, ‘We don’t have to be anything.’ She’s scared of weather, of snow; she’s scared of everything.” In the end, says Ramadan, it was the thought of giving Tala a more hopeful life that spurred Nour to embrace family reunification.

Ramadan, of course, is deeply grateful to Vancity. But more than that, he sees the credit union’s family reunification program as helping strengthen the entire country, as well as his own fragile familial bonds. “Canada is a mosaic built on Indigenous territories. We enhance this culture when we come together.” ◊