Canada Sept. 11, 2017

Asylum seekers need honest information: refugee coordinator

By Deborah Gyapong

Alessandra Santopadre, refugee-sponsorship coordinator with the Montreal archdiocese, stands with a child of a Pakistani Christian family her office is helping while they seek refugee status in Canada. (Photo courtesy Alessandra Santopadre)

OTTAWA (CCN)—The woman who runs the Archdiocese of Montreal's outreach to refugees says asylum seekers need honest information about their chances of remaining in Canada.

“Otherwise, they arrive here and after a few months they are sent back because their request as a refugee is not valid,” said Alessandra Santopadre, 47, coordinator of the archdiocese’s refugee sponsorship program.

Asylum seekers now in the United States have to understand that just arriving in Canada does not mean they’ll be accepted as refugees, she said.

“You have to be a convention refugee, not (arriving) because you are scared of Trump,” she said. “That is not a reason.”

Convention refugees are defined as people who have a “well founded fear of persecution” based on five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group ,and political opinion.

While the summer’s recent surge of mostly Haitian asylum seekers has abated somewhat, Santopadre said many groups are in the United States under similar circumstances. They come from countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen, and Sudan,Fleeing poverty, or an environmental crisis will not be enough to guarantee being received into Canada, she said.

Fleeing poverty, or an environmental crisis will not be enough to guarantee being received into Canada, she said.

Nevertheless, the Montreal archdiocese is poised to help asylum seekers, especially vulnerable pregnant women and women with small children. On Oct. 1, it will open a former rectory that will provide 12 rooms to temporarily house them while their refugee applications are processed and before they can obtain rental accommodation.

Santopadre began working for the Montreal archdiocese five years ago, but she has spent much of her adult life working with refugees. Born in Italy, she spent 15 years working for the Scalabrinian religious community in outreach to refugee communities. That work took her around the world to various countries to get to know the circumstances on the ground and “find a solution with local people,” she said.

Prior to coming to Canada, she had worked most recently in Haiti, arriving there in 2007, three years before the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

Since taking over the refugee-sponsorship program, Santopadre has spent a lot of time in airports, waiting for refugee families to arrive.

Sometimes she is with a priest and members of a local parish waiting for their sponsored family; other times she is with a family waiting for a sponsored loved one or loved ones.

Alessandra Santopadre with a Pakistani Christian couple who walked across the US border to Canada last March. (Photo courtesy Alessandra Santopadre)

“When they see their family coming out, it’s a magic moment,” she said. After a week or two, she will visit the new family to help ensure they have what they need.

In 2016-2017, the archdiocese processed 345 files involving about 700 people from countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Burundi, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran. Forty-seven parishes are involved in refugee sponsorship efforts – about half involved in direct sponsorships, the rest in fundraising or helping families that are sponsoring relatives.

Her office helps families that wish to sponsor family members in navigating the refugee and immigration process with the government.

“We have to be there to help them and support them,” she said.

In March, a family of Pakistani Christians crossed the border illegally into Canada because they had heard of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Tweet welcoming people to Canada. At first they stayed at a YMCA, but then they came to Santopadre’s office.

St. Giovanni Bosco, an Italian parish in Montreal, offered to put them up for two to three months while they searched for an apartment, Santopadre said. “They became part of the community.” Their children, ages six and eight, have started school.

Santopadre visits them regularly. “They’re scared the Canadian government will send them back to Pakistan. Christians are persecuted there.”

The father told her, “I don’t want my two children to suffer as I suffered as a Christian,” she said.

In her work, she tries to stay in touch with the families being sponsored and the families and communities that are sponsoring them, to help them become aware of cultural differences.

“It’ something I love to do,” she said. “I don’t see difference as a problem but as a richness.”