B.C. Churches Volunteer To House Tamil Migrants

B.C. churches volunteer to house Tamil migrants

By Jennifer McClee
Canada.com, August 30, 2010

Two British Columbia churches are hoping to answer the prayers of a family of Tamil migrants who arrived on the British Columbia coast earlier this month.

Parishioners at St. Catherine's Anglican and Trinity United churches in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam are planning to help a Tamil family settle in the city by paying one month's rent and linking them to local social services.

Leslie Hammond said she got the idea as she prayed at the Anglican church last week.

Every Wednesday, Hammond says prayers at St. Catherine's for people around the world.

She said she was thinking about the 492 Sri Lankan migrants who arrived in Victoria after three months aboard a cramped cargo ship.

'As I was saying prayers last Wednesday, I suddenly thought of the Sun Sea,' Hammond said.

'I know they're not legally refugees, but they're coming from a war-torn country. I thought I cannot in good conscience continue to pray for these people when they are on my doorstep and I've done nothing to help them.'

Hammond is planning to pay one month's rent in a three-bedroom house for an extended Tamil family after they are released from custody. She also wants to provide household items including mattresses, bedding, towels, pots and pans, and school supplies for children.

The congregations of St. Catherine's and Trinity United agreed to support her cause through donations.

'If any other church group wanted to step up and say that they were willing to fund another house, that would be excellent because then we would have two houses,' Hammond said.

'It's a serious idea and it needs publication because they're sitting smugly in Ottawa saying nobody cares. And there are people who care. We care deeply.'

To David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, that sense of caring is 'what Canada is all about.'

'This is the Canadian value that we cherish and hold near and dear to our hearts. We saw the compassion in them,' said Poopalapillai, who travelled to B.C. from the organization's headquarters in Toronto. 'We were deeply touched at the community, how it has taken this up.'

Poopalapillai said refugees often end up becoming productive members of Canadian society.

Many members of the Canada's existing Tamil community have launched successful careers and employ numerous workers, he added.

But he also acknowledged some people hold the opposite perspective about the hundreds of recent migrants and believe they are a burden.

'These are new people to Canada. They're totally new. They need some help. They need some real help to put their lives back into normalcy in this country,' he said.

'In that context, any help from any church or any group is most welcome. That would help them to smoothen the process to integrate into this society.'

Simon Fraser University history professor and international security expert Andre Gerolymatos said there are no risks associated with the churches' initiative.

'I think it's a really good plan. I'm sure that the government will be looking after housing for them, so they may not have to worry about paying their first month's rent. Maybe they could focus the money on getting them clothes and some things like that. I'm sure they'll be in need of that,' said Gerolymatos.

'I think it's a very good idea. It certainly shows that we are a welcoming community. I think that it will make them feel good, make them feel wanted.'

Gerolymatos said the ship itself was likely chartered by the Tamil Tigers, deemed a terrorist organization by the Canadian government. He said it is possible that a few of the Tamil migrants may also be members of the group.

'But maybe those people are not terrorists as such, but just members of an organization which itself is terrorist. The majority of them are probably honest people who are trying to jump the queue and get to Canada. It's a loophole in our immigration policy. Right now, they're a drop in the bucket,' he said.

'I believe there are better ways for us to handle this, both for us and for them. These people spent three months on a leaky boat. Maybe it would have been better for them if Canada had set up a processing centre in their country.

'Also, all of them would have paid a lot of money to get on that boat versus paying nothing to talk to Canadian immigration if we had something set up there. They basically had to give a down payment and then promise to pay the rest of the money. So they spend the first three or four years here working to pay off the people that brought them here.'

Hammond has faith that the church groups can make life a little easier, at least for one Tamil family. She has contacted government organizations, but has had little luck in finding out how to turn her idea into a reality.

'This is on a wing and a prayer,' she said.