January 31, 2011
Paulette Johnson and Elena Zerea encourage churches to sponsor suffering refugees.


Paulette Johnson and Elena Zerea encourage churches to sponsor suffering refugees.


EDMONTON — Elena Zerea's experiences are an example of the nightmare that many refugees call their lives.

At least 35 million people worldwide are deemed refugees, people who have been forced to run for their lives, and are now exiled from their homes, either temporarily or permanently. Half of them are women and children. Many live in refugee camps, fleeing armed conflict, rape and mutilation.

From her home country of Eritrea, a country in East Africa, Zerea fled to Greece to escape war and intolerable conditions.

"When Ethiopia was under the Russians, I was tortured for 21 days because we were going to church on Sunday," said Zerea.

She had never dreamed of coming to Canada, but fled due to the torture and the armed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. She arrived in Canada in December 1993, and is grateful to be here.

"When I was nine years old, my two sisters burned in our house. A plane came with a Canadian flag and wheat. My family was eating the wheat by itself, without anything. After, we were kissing the Canadian flag," said Zerea, speaking of her lifelong gratitude for Canada.

Never forgetting how sponsors assisted her, making her new life in Canada possible, she is now paying it forward, and has become a strong advocate for refugee sponsorship. She visits local parishes, encouraging groups to sponsor refugee families.

"War destroys everything. I adore Canada with all my heart, and I love my opportunity to come here," said Zerea. "Immigration doesn't work by itself, if you don't have compassion for the refugees."

For refugee sponsorships, Zerea confirmed that effective partnerships have been established between Catholics and other faith groups. Still, Zerea has heard anti-Islamic sentiments.

"Sometimes I go to churches and they say, 'We're not going to sponsor a Muslim.' We sponsor them because we are human. Jesus died on the cross for everybody."

Paulette Johnson, refugee sponsorship coordinator with Catholic Social Services, said 57 per cent of refugees in Africa are younger than 18.

Two million children were killed by war in the past decade, and there are about 300,000 child soldiers in the world today. The only hope for most of them is to resettle in a new country.

About 12 Catholic parishes in Edmonton are currently sponsoring refugees. The sponsorship period is one year.

The level of financial support is equivalent to local provincial social assistance rates. For an individual, including start-up costs, this amounts to $11,584 a year. For a family of six, the sponsorship cost is $27,008 a year.


"What does sponsorship take? Of course, it takes financial resources. It will take a group of committed volunteers. It will take an openness to learn about the refugees, and a willingness to welcome them, to support them, to offer them friendship, and it takes respect for the newcomers' autonomy," said Johnson.

She was the main presenter at the Edmonton Archdiocese social justice office's monthly lunch and learn, held Jan. 21 at Newman Theological College.

Bob McKeon, social justice director for the Edmonton Archdiocese, agreed that to speak of refugees today is both controversial and political.

"The issue of refugees and immigration goes to the heart of Catholic social teaching. It is the core of our faith. It's a conversation grounded in words like human dignity, solidarity and common good."