VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CNS) — A priest who escaped from Syria is now helping other Christian refugees flee oppression and resettle in cities in British Columbia.
“I know what it’s like to be a refugee there,” said Father Sarmad Biloues of SS. Peter and Paul Chaldean mission. “They lost everything, even their dignity.”
Several years ago, Father Biloues worked day and night among thousands of faithful at a parish in Syria. He saw refugee camps and heard about people who had been abused or killed because they were Christian.
The day he fled was the day a terrorist group put his name on their kill list. A member of the group knew the priest personally and was able to warn him.
“Father, we’re going to come and kill you today. Leave the church,” Father Biloues said, recounting the man’s words.
The priest fled and later found out that a car bomb had been set up near the church.
“They’re still asking for my name. If I come near the border, they will take me and kill me,” Father Biloues added.
Now, he said, God has a different job for him in Canada. For the past seven years, Father Biloues has been welcoming Christian refugees through the Vancouver Archdiocese’s Refugee Sponsorship Program and helping them resettle.
Evelyn Vollet, director of the archdiocesan Office of Service and Justice, which oversees the program, said bringing a refugee to Canada can take years.
“The process is very long and it’s very arduous,” she said.
The archdiocese holds a sponsorship agreement with the federal government. Vollet said there are about 85 agreement holders across Canada, and each has limits on how many refugees they can bring in.
Her office acts as the contact point between the government and parishes.
“If we didn’t have this agreement, parishes wouldn’t be able to do this. They sponsor through our agreement,” she explained.
Typically, a refugee comes in through family connections, she said.
“That’s the beauty of our program: It is a family link. They are coming into a community; they are not coming here alone, wondering where to connect,” Vollet said.
The office handles additional paperwork and supporting documents. Diane Chua, the office’s resettlement worker, said this also means answering thousands of emails and tracking hundreds of applications and refugees.
“There are hot points and they have to move,” Vollet explained. “It’s even more difficult with civil war,” as in Syria.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, 1.7 million Syrians have been directly affected by the conflict, with more than 1 million of those refugees registered with the U.N. since January.
Oversees visa offices conduct face-to-face interviews and medical exams with refugees. That process can last 16-58 months, depending on the country.
Vollet said the greatest need is family reunification.
“Is it a brother? A sister? That is, to us, the greatest need. If it’s a mother who’s here, and she needs to bring her son, to us that’s the greatest need,” she explained.
Since 2007, the archdiocese has resettled 1,400 refugees. Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, which hosts Father Biloues’ mission, has sponsored 820 of them.
“Every day I remember the day I left Syria and how they begged me: ‘Please help us,'” Father Biloues recounted. “That was my dream: to help everybody there.”
Refugees also receive support in the form of furniture, clothing, somewhere to live, and a first round of groceries. Father Biloues said he helps them connect with teachers and doctors so “they are not isolated, like an island.”