Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Refugee costs strain church groups

Federal cuts, mass arrival make it tough for newcomers

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When they got together nearly a decade ago to sponsor refugees, a group of Winnipeg churches didn't expect it would take so long, they'd all arrive at once or that the federal government would cancel their medical benefits.

Now the neighbourhood churches say they're struggling to live up to their commitment as a surge of newcomers arrives.

"It's the looming costs of everything that escalate," said retired United Church minister Ken Anstie with the Nassau Street Churches Refugee Committee. He's scrambling to find housing for 10 Somalis who began arriving in November. The churches -- Crescent Fort Rouge United, St. Luke's Anglican, Holy Rosary Roman Catholic, Christian Science and Harrow United -- have committed to helping them get settled and covering their living costs for one year.

"We try to put on fundraisers and people give personally," Anstie said.

But with a higher cost of living, aging congregations, refugees arriving in rapid succession and the federal government cutting their health benefits, it's getting tougher, the volunteer said.

Private sponsors were stunned when Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced it would no longer pay for refugees' prosthetics, prescriptions or dental and vision care as of June 30.

Had church officials known the federal government was going to renege on its commitment to pay for those expenses, they would have thought twice about all the sponsorships they committed to, Anstie said.

"It may mean in future private sponsorships will be cut back because of all the added expenses on top of basic costs like rent and heat."

Rev. Barb Janes at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church called it "despicable."

She remembers Immigration Minister Jason Kenney meeting with church officials in Winnipeg and encouraging them to sponsor "Christian refugees from Iraq."

Kenney failed to mention cuts to supplemental health benefits.

"What galls me is that at no point in that presentation did he say there was a plan to renege on the sponsorship agreement and stick the sponsors with health care costs," Janes said.

The health care needs of refugees are unknown before they arrive, she added.

"To think that refugee sponsors can A, diagnose these things and B, afford treatment is crazy," she said.

Before they arrive in Canada, refugees receive little if any medical treatment, have a poor diet and live with improper sanitation, Janes said. "If they fled a war zone, they may well have injuries that have gone unattended," she said. "Some have faced torture."

On June 30, Immigration backtracked and said it would continue to provide coverage to government-assisted refugees but privately sponsored refugees are on their own.

Cyrilo Simpunga, who lost a leg in a machete attack in Congo, got a new prosthetic just before June 30. His sponsor, Hospitality House, is paying for expensive mediation to treat his ulcer.

The Catholic and Anglican church-funded organization and the Diocese of Rupert's Land have taken the federal government to court for stripping new refugees of medical benefits such as prescription medicine and prosthetics.

Hospitality House has to cover more costs while it's receiving more refugees.

"Our arrivals are up about one-third over last year," executive director Tom Denton said.

Most are from older sponsorship applications that are being processed now at beefed-up visa centres in Nairobi, Kenya and Cairo, Egypt, Denton said.

The federal government capped new sponsorship applications while it clears a backlog of refugee files.

"...Eventually, the visa posts do catch up on the old cases and the day of reckoning comes," he said.

The refugees eventually arrive in Winnipeg.

"One never really knows until the last minute," he said. "Typically, we get about 10 to 14 days' notice of an arrival, but we have had them in the recent past with as little as eight hours."

With a local vacancy rate near zero, it can take up to nine months to find long-term accommodation for the refugees, Denton said.

At one point last year, Hospitality House had 17 newcomers in its short-term receiving home, which normally houses nine, Denton said. They had to rent a second house.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 A4

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