Helping make refugees feel at home

The NOW caught up with James Grunau, executive director with Journey Home Community Association, a non-profit faith-based group that helps asylum-seeking refugees in Burnaby and New Westminster.

What drew you to this kind of work?

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I was working in my friend's business in 2004, but my heart was taking me in a more humanitarian direction. So I began to do some research and found that there were over 2,000 refugees arriving annually in the Metro Vancouver area, often with little support and few resources.

I took this information to my church home group, and we began to think and pray about how we could respond. Journey Home Community was born in the fall of 2005, just as a group of volunteers trying to make a difference in the lives of a few refugee families, and has now grown to what it is today. It has been a great fit for me - I love international people, food and culture.

What motivates you to keep going?

A big part of what motivates me is to see this vocation as a calling from God. My father came to Canada as a kind of refugee, and I feel I have been given so much in life that it has become my desire to share those benefits with others.

What kind of refugees do you help?

There are two ways for refugees to come to Canada: either sponsored - privately or by the government - or by arriving at a Canadian border and seeking protection. The second group is called "refugee claimants," and they are given an opportunity to present their case at an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing, as provided by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, for a decision on the legitimacy of their claim. This is the group that our organization focuses on. They are typically fleeing some type of persecution in their home country and need to find an immediate safe place.

How are the problems they face different from normal refugees?

Refugee claimants are often escaping an immediate danger, so they are struggling with some kind of current trauma. Because they face the possibility of having their claim rejected, they live with an ongoing uncertainty of where their life journey will take them.

Many resources that are available to convention refugees are inaccessible to refugee claimants so they are further marginalized in our community.

What kind of help can they get from your association?

We have emergency, transitional and permanent levels of housing, resettlement support in securing access to community resources such as legal aid, income assistance, health and education benefits and relational assistance in linking Canadians who come alongside to provide the family and friendship they have left behind.

With asylum seeking refugees who haven't been vetted yet by immigration officials, how can you tell they are authentic refugees in need of help?

Early on in our organization, we decided that it is the Immigration and Refugee Board's decision to determine the legitimacy of a refugee claim and it is our responsibility to help those who come across our pathway and are in need, regardless of their race, nationality, gender, religion or social grouping.

People who have been forcibly displaced do not choose to leave their country and, even if they do come for economic reasons, one can hardly blame a family for leaving their homeland to just try and find a way to survive. A (UN High Commission for Refugees) poster in our office captures it well - the caption is, "refugee go home," and the response is, "he would if he could."

Can you tell me a bit about Journey Home's connection to the church?

As I mentioned earlier, Journey Home has its roots in the church when a home group from Willingdon Church launched the initial movement. Since then we have developed relationships with a number of other partner churches including Olivet Baptist Church, which owns the two large houses we use for our first stage emergency housing.

When the MV Sun Sea ship arrived from Sri Lanka a few years ago, and we were asked to care for 10 families, it was to churches we turned for help, and they did not disappoint us.

We still have much of our volunteer help coming from a variety of churches throughout the community.

How does your faith tie into your work?

The refugee situation in the world today seems to be worsening and forms a rather dark picture. On a human level it is hard to find hope. So we need to go beyond the human to embrace the divine and a God of hope, a God who cares for and loves his creation and is present with them in their journey. Jesus was a refugee as his parents fled to Egypt shortly after his birth to escape the persecution of newborn infants of his day.

I like to tell people that one of the most fascinating parts of my job is to watch what God does in creating possibilities out of impossible situations.

The God who has called me to this work gives me hope on behalf of those we serve.

I noticed Journey Home is also looking for volunteers to welcome refugees into the community. Can you tell me a bit about how that works?

Yes, we cannot do all that we do without a strong corps of volunteers. We are particularly in need of volunteers to help us in a variety of opportunities at our thrift store, Journey Home Thrift on Edmonds Street in Burnaby.

The store is a project of our organization, and any profits are used to directly support our refugee work. There are other volunteer opportunities that exist in the organization including tasks that require specialized skills, for example in communications.

Is there anything else we should know?

This past year has been a very difficult and challenging time for refugee work in Canada. Our federal government has moved to make some drastic changes to our refugee legislation which has, in effect, put an increasing stranglehold on the refugee claimant process. In addition, they have made unconscionable cuts to refugee health care, which has caused a strong reaction in the medical community across Canada, has put an increasing burden on refugee serving organizations and, most of all, has dealt a severe blow to a population group already suffering from immeasurable suffering.

We are grateful for all those who have shown an attitude of compassion and have rallied around Journey Home Community in so many ways - thank you!

For more information or to volunteer, go to www.journeyhomecommunity.ca.

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