World Refugee Day on June 20 is a call for communities around the world to work toward peace and security for all, remembering especially the millions of people who are displaced or forcibility uprooted from their homes.

Is your community of faith ready to help displaced people as they seek to rebuild their lives? Learn more about sponsoring a refugee.

I have worked with refugees, both as a volunteer and as the Refugee Resource Person for the United Church’s Maritime Conference, for much of my life. There have been many highs and lows: the heady joy of arrivals, the relief of providing safe environments for newcomers, the frustration of communication, the refugees’ sadness of leaving the familiar behind, and their urgent desire to bring more family members to Canada. I spent many fulfilling years with newcomers, and enjoyed the experiences of getting to know both sponsors and refugees. This work has grown my world view immensely.

My first taste of the world of newcomers was as a child growing up in Halifax immediately after World War II. Many Jewish immigrants from Poland and elsewhere came to Canada seeking a new, safer life. Polish Jews came to Halifax and started small businesses: grocery and meat markets, dress shops, and the like. I didn’t really understand why they came to Nova Scotia, but I felt their presence in my community and attended school with their children, some of whom became my friends. This was the beginning.

My husband’s (Rev. Curtis McDonald’s) second posting was in Yarmouth, NS. Not long after we arrived, he was asked to solicit support for a recently arrived refugee family from Vietnam. Although I had met international students at university, most had come from wealthy families. Many Vietnamese refugees had been middleclass business owners and shopkeepers in Vietnam, but came to Canada by a very different route—as victims of war and from refugee camps.

I remember being in a dental office at the same time as a small Vietnamese child who was having all of her baby teeth extracted. I can hear her screams to this day! Her teeth had decayed as a result of circumstances on the South China Sea and living in refugee camps. Ten years later, we billeted this same child in our home in Pictou, NS. Now 13 years old, she was a breaststroker with the Yarmouth Whitecaps swim team and had come to Pictou to compete in a swim meet. She had grown into a young woman who exuded confidence.

It wasn’t until our next move to Truro, NS that I actually became involved in refugee sponsorship. Our small church community did a Joint Assistance Sponsorship of a family from Croatia with two sets of twins. This was in the 1990s, following the war in the former Yugoslavia. There were several families sponsored to come to the area, all from Croatia or Bosnia. We socialized together with them. These were my first learnings, and led to my involvement at the regional and national level of refugee sponsorship.

My first comprehensive undertaking related to refugees was the “Palestinian Project” in 2009. Staff from Immigration and Citizenship Canada and Amnesty International travelled to camps in northern Syria, identified people at risk, and placed their names on a list for private sponsorship in Canada. One group of nine related families were sponsored by various churches and community groups in Halifax. We worked together with Immigrant Services of Nova Scotia (a local settlement agency) to give these families support. The original nine families proposed that other related families be sponsored, and the number of sponsored individuals grew. This project prepared us for the arrival of Syrian refugees around 2015.

In addition to being the Refugee Resource Person for Maritime Conference, I volunteered with “Christians for Refugees,” a refugee support group based in Halifax. I spent many hours taking newcomers to medical appointments, lining up translators, meeting people at the airport, and assisting them in settling in other ways. My husband and I escorted refugee children to school and attended “meet the teacher” sessions with their parents, among many other things. 

Once Syrian refugees started arriving in late 2015, I was fully engaged in education, correspondence, meetings, and the business of assisting groups with the process of refugee sponsorship. As a volunteer, I was working full-time to assist in settling newcomers in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. Many groups were new to sponsoring refugees, so it took patience to guide them through the bureaucracy of the process and manage their expectations. Some sponsored families arrived very quickly, some within six months or so, some are just now arriving, and some Syrian refugees still have yet to arrive.

Now that I am officially retired, I am still delighted when I meet up unexpectedly with sponsors or newcomers from my past, or receive communication from them. As a practicing pharmacist, also now retired, I never imagined I would be led in this direction. I appreciate all the hard and dedicated work carried out by sponsors and newcomers!

 —Recently retired, Bev McDonald was the Refugee Resource Person for Maritime Conference from 2000 to 2017. She is also a retired pharmacist.