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for more than a quarter century

My friend in Nairobi

screenshot-2016-10-10-14-28-52Almost a year ago I attended a meeting of local New Denverites who were interested in the idea of sponsoring a refugee family. Out of that meeting, the Slocan Valley Refugee Coalition formed. We opened a bank account and started fund-raising and submitted our “we’re ready!” paperwork in January, requesting to be matched with a family. The program we’re using is the BVOR stream …. “blended visa-office referred,” which means that our case is referred by the visa office (rather than being someone we know) and that the funding is shared between the government and our sponsorship group. Because New Denver is far from Canadian government immigration services, we could not take a family from the stream of 25,000 Syrian refugees who were fast-tracked during the early part of 2016; those refugees were part of the GAR-stream (Government-Assisted Refugees) and that meant they could only settle in larger population centres where government support was available. Instead we waited for the still-just-trickling pipeline of approved cases coming through the BVOR stream.

It took some tech creativity, but eventually we got matched with a family. So few cases were coming through, and so many sponsorship groups waiting, that we had to aim for near-instant decision-making and response. Slack and IFTTT were very helpful in that respect! Luck finally went our way at the end of July. We had our match, to a family of 8 Somalis currently living in Nairobi. We were told that we would likely get notification of their travel itinerary in 4 to 12 weeks. At that point we’ll have a week or two, and then they’ll be here.

We were told the names, the family composition, their current location, birth years and the profession of the father. And that was all. We were politely asked not to contact the government office for at least 12 weeks.

But it turns out that Kenya, even in the crime-ridden refugee slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi, is pushing the global envelope with mobile communications. Almost everyone has a mobile phone. With banking either untrusted or inaccessible to many, with telephone land-line service having never been widely available, Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world to innovate in the brave new world of mobile commerce. Nomadic tribespeople might have to walk two days to a village and pay to use a charging port, but they will then use their vodaphone to receive payment for the sale of some goats.

The ubiquity of mobile technology in Kenya meant something very important for our sponsorship group: it meant that the family we were matched to had an online social media presence. It was not easy to find them with the limited information we had, but it was not all that difficulty either. I did some digging, trying out different name and location combinations, and culling through dozens of possibilities until I found an entry that looked promising. I drilled down. I found photos that included children; I checked dates and ages. I read comments and found reference to family members’ names and it all matched what we had been told about our family.

I talked to my local group. I showed them what I had found. We mulled it over for a week. We talked to friends and family who had experience with refugee sponsorships and asked for their advice. The consensus was that we should definitely invite contact.

And so I wrote:

Dear ___. I believe your family may be matched with our Canadian refugee sponsorship group. If this is correct and you would like to communicate as we prepare to welcome you, please to add me as a friend. We are very happy and excited at the possibility of being in touch!

And thus began a veritable deluge of excited correspondence with my new friend in Nairobi. Although his family isn’t fluent in English, he is and so we text chat, voice chat, send photos, emails, links, information, questions and answers. Every morning it is his evening. Every evening it is his morning. We check in twice most days. We are gradually getting to know each other, and are sorting things out for his family’s arrival. Now I am putting the children at the school in touch with his children through their teachers.

They had no idea there was a community in Canada preparing to welcome them any day. They had only been told that their case file was at the final stage, and given that the process has been going for almost 8 years now, they had no reason to assume the final stage wasn’t backlogged by months or years. Now they know it is imminent and they know so many of the details! I asked them if it was difficult to have me stoking their excitement and making them so impatient to get here, while being forced to wait for the opaque Canadian bureaucracy to connect the dots for their travel.

“The impatience is nothing. We have so much hope now,” he replied.

Ten weeks and counting. Let’s hope they travel soon!




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