Meet the man who's helping the most vulnerable refugees

One refugee advocate wants to change the way the public and the media view asylum seekers living in Metro Vancouver.

The NOW’s Tanya Commisso spoke with James Grunau, executive director of refugee assistance group Journey Home Community Association, following a speech he gave to the Rotary Club of Vancouver, entitled So What Can A Refugee Contribute?

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Journey Home Community Association began life in late 2005 as a small operation with a low budget, funded mostly by the donations of a few volunteers and a board of three people.

In those first days, the group’s website notes it was helping a handful of refugee families. Now, it has expanded its vision to help meet the needs of hundreds of refugees who claim asylum in this part of Canada each year.

The group helps about 12 to 16 new families per year with transitional housing, finding them apartments in Burnaby and New Westminster, and has supported more than 40 more families with resettlement assistance and their move to more permanent housing.

It also has numerous volunteer teams who work alongside families to offer them support in their journeys.

For more on the organization and its work, see


You consider the “refugee world” to have changed over the last six to eight months. How would you describe that change?

I think Canada has recovered its refugee heart. When the image appeared on the global scene of the child on the Turkish beach, I think it caught everyone’s attention, certainly. It caused Canadians to identify with the refugee crisis in a stronger way.

So that, in conjunction with the election in Canada, created an environment for a much more positive stance towards refugees and an opening of our doors and our borders in a much deeper way, particularly to the Syrian refugees, but that has had a spillover effect to refugees in general.

So even though we as Journey Home Community don’t work too much directly with sponsored refugees – either government or privately sponsored, we work with refugee claimants – that goodwill and awareness of the refugee crisis and refugee needs has spilled over to all of Canada’s refugee serving agencies and has created a much more positive environment.

Why do you think there isn’t a lot of talk around what a refugee can positively contribute to the community?

It’s so easy to stereotype refugees as being needy and victims and not having much to offer in the way of resources – which, in certain ways, is true.

They don’t have in the way of monetary resources when the come, they have been victimized in some ways, and been persecuted, absolutely, but they have much to bring and offer.

How can refugees counter the radicalization process?

I can give two examples of former refugees who have been a part of Journey Home Community that have helped to counter radicalization.

The first person I spoke about [during my speech] was Abdul. He’s a well-respected Islamic scholar, but of the moderate wing of Islam – and of course that didn’t go down well with the radical Islamic element in his part of the world, as you can well imagine.

He came to Canada and has had a positive refugee determination. Now, he’s been invited by the government of his home country to assist them in a number of ways.

He reports to the country’s president’s chief of staff, he’s been invited to help prepare curriculum for Islamic teaching in schools to reflect a more moderate element into the curriculum and he has written articles to reinterpret some of the radical elements of the Quran. He believes freedom of religion is a human right and should be granted to everyone, which is not the common view of very fundamental and conservative Muslims.

The second example I gave was of Sayed from Pakistan. He’s been in Canada for a good number of years now and has become a Canadian citizen. He worked as a senior project consultant for various NGOs in Pakistan. He has served as a chief of staff for both the vice president and the minister of foreign affairs in his home country. And he’s represented his nation as a political councilor at the United Nations in New York.

He’s recently been concerned with how to combat Islamic radicalization. So him and a colleague in another western country have developed a concept paper on strategizing some ways to address the issue of radicalization.

He believes that, and I quote: “there is compelling evidence that outdated cultural practices and Islamic radicalization has collectively perpetuated violence throughout many societies around the world.” And so they are designing and proposing a web of education program for preschool, elementary and secondary school, to be designed as private, but not-for-profit. They also want to establish a higher standard of education and vigorous research programs and publication of a monthly social and family magazine.

So, my point is here are two people from a country that is strongly Muslim but are former refugees who have recognized the need to not only have humanitarian assistance in these areas, but to address the refugee crisis at the root cause level.

What would your response be to those who believe refugees will perpetuate radicalization?

My response would be that there’s always a perceived fear, and we can easily tend to focus on the possibilities of what could occur, rather than looking at and focusing on the very wonderful people that do arrive and these (Abdul and Sayed) are only two examples of people from a Muslim country that actually have the same kinds of concerns and are contributing to counter the terrorism and the radicalization that goes on. So let’s focus our energies on supporting and encouraging these kinds of strong initiatives. I think these aren’t often the kinds of (initiatives) that make the news.

You said that although there seems to be a bit of a spotlight on the refugee crisis as of recently, asylum seekers (or refugee claimants) are often forgotten. Could you expand on that a bit?

If we were looking at the Metro Vancouver area, apart from the current influx of refugees through the Syrian sponsorship program, typically, Metro Vancouver would receive 800 to 900 government-sponsored refugees annually.

But, Metro Vancouver also receives about a thousand asylum seekers, or refugee claimants, annually.

And [refugee claimants] don’t have any large organizing body or agency to coordinate assistance and help for them. They’re kind of left to fend for themselves and find their own way, because there isn’t federal funding for settlement of refugee claimants.

What can be done to increase the awareness of refugee claimants coming into Canada?

We’re actually seeking some funding to increase that awareness and to engage with community groups and church groups that want to provide support and settlement for refugee claimants and sponsor a family.

We want the public to know about this category of refugees, first of all, and second of all, we want people to know how they can refer refugee claimants, if they come across them, to the organizations that can provide help.

The Red Cross Multi Agency Partnership (MAP network) was the first group that helped to launch the First Contact program in the Metro Vancouver area.

It’s a program that creates information packets, which are left at the airport, border crossing, inland immigration and refugee offices, and any place where refugee claimants might come forward.

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