Building a New Future — With a Little Help

Just under a decade ago, in the autumn of 2015, ARTA members Al and Barb Borkent were approached by a fellow member of their church in Sherwood Park and asked a question that would redirect the focus of their lives: “Hey, would you like to join our refugee committee?” They agreed, not knowing exactly what they were getting themselves into. Now, almost ten years later, they are at the centre of a network of families that they have helped to settle in Canada; families that, with a little help, have been able to build a promising new future for themselves.

Coming to Canada as a refugee isn’t as simple as showing up at a port or border crossing and asking to be let in. For most applicants, it’s a long process with a constant need for checks and documentation. First, those applying for refugee status need to leave their home country and prove to the Canadian government that it’s not safe for them to return. Then, they go through criminal record checks, security checks, and provide medical information. This process can take months or even years. Then, finally, when the application is approved, privately sponsored refugees can come to Canada, but only if they have a sponsor waiting on the other side: someone who will look after them while they get settled and show them how to navigate life in their new home.

That’s where Al and Barb come in. They act as private sponsors for refugees trying to find safety and security in Canada. “When we first got started, we were given a list of one hundred names and told to pick two families we wanted to sponsor,” says Al. “From there, we had to start raising money. The government wants to see that you can provide for the family while they’re getting set up; depending on the size of that family, you might need to raise $40,000 to $50,000.”

Al and Barb are active participants in the application process. They call their MP’s office for regular updates and do what they can to speed things along. “Every time we call to get an update, it seems to motivate the government to move things along a little faster,” Al jokes, “So, we like to keep in touch.”

After the family arrives, Al and Barb set them up in the community. This means helping them find housing, work, doctors, banks, drivers’ training, English classes, or whatever they need to be successful in Canada. It may seem like a lot of work, but as a sponsor you’re not just providing a service for someone in need, you’re inviting a family to be part of your life and claiming a certain degree of responsibility for their well-being.

“We basically see it as an opportunity to serve,” says Al. “Living in Canada, we’re very privileged. We’ve always been well provided for, and looking at the world around us, we see such need everywhere. There are so many opportunities to help.”

Their first family arrived in 2016 from Syria byway of Lebanon. Since then, they’ve sponsored anumber of other families fleeing Syria, Afghanistan,and Ukraine. Some families have since relocated to be closer to relatives in other cities or to find better work opportunities. Most, however, have stayed in the Sherwood Park area, where Al and Barb remain in regular contact, even years after the families became self-sufficient.

Besides helping refugees directly, there is another aspect of Al and Barb’s work. That list of one hundred names they were given back in 2015 made it clear to both of them that no matter how many applicants they are able to help, there are always more in need. But with enough people pitching in, their impact can be greatly expanded.

“As seniors in our community, we see an opportunity to mentor the younger generation to continue on with the work we’re doing,” says Barb. “We take them under our wing and show them what the steps are to become a private sponsor. We also reach out to other churches who want to start sponsoring families and share tips and lessons we’ve learned.”

Currently, Al and Barb are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their latest family from Syria. By now, they’re used to the routine, but there is always a certain sense of excitement as the arrival date approaches. After that, they plan to sponsor another family, and another, for as long as they are able and as long as there are people to help.

Robert Michon | Manager, Communications

Robert holds degrees in English and Communications from the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. He has a background as a writer, editor, and journalist and enjoys every opportunity he gets to bring stories to life.