Elise Herzig, director of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) in Toronto, has more than 1,000 emails in her inbox related to the Afghan refugee crisis. Some are from people still in Afghanistan or who have fled but not yet found a permanent home and are desperate for assistance, while others are from Canadians eager to help.
“We saw an incredible outpouring of support in the Jewish community during the Syrian refugee crisis and we’re seeing it all over again,” Herzig told The CJN.
In 2015, when Syrians fled their country’s civil war, numerous Canadian faith groups, including Jewish organizations, agreed to privately sponsor Syrian refugees, taking on the cost of providing for a family for a year and helping them integrate into society.
As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban over the summer, those most likely to be targeted by the repressive regime—women leaders, scientists, lawyers and journalists among others—tried to flee.
The CJN has reported on efforts by Canadian-Israeli Sylvan Adams and IsraAid to help female athletes and engineers leave Afghanistan.
Canada had initially committed to accepting 20,000 Afghan refugees and has since revised that goal to 40,000, but for now, the process of approving private sponsorships is on hold, Herzig said.
Among the decisions the government must make are whether Afghan refugees’ applications will be fast-tracked and what that will do to an immigration system already backlogged by delays caused by COVID.
JIAS is the only Jewish organization in Canada to be a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), which allows it to oversee and process private refugee sponsorships.
Like the country’s other SAHs, JIAS is still waiting to see how many spots it will be allocated by the federal government. Until that is determined, sponsorship applications cannot even begin.
“We have a waitlist, which is kind of scary, and until we know how many people we can sponsor, we’re not sure how big a role we’re going to get to play,” Herzig said.
Immigration agencies are looking for the government to provide “some timelines and guidelines. We’re looking for how many people can we bring in, we’re looking for timelines as how this is going to be processed,” she added.
Once a private sponsorship is submitted, the refugee applicants are thoroughly vetted by the federal government, a process that can take a year, Herzig said.
Synagogues will again be involved in private sponsorship, Herzig said, as they were during the Syrian refugee crisis. Several rabbis used their High Holiday sermons to speak about the situation and have been in touch with the agency.
About 4,000 people, mostly Canadian citizens or government-sponsored refugees, have arrived on 18 military jets from Afghanistan since August, Herzig said. Toronto is the only entry port right now for refugees, although they are free to settle anywhere in the country. Calgary is opening as an entry port for Afghan refugees coming from the United States and it is expected that about 5,000 refugees will enter that way.
Refugees spend the first two weeks quarantined in a hotel. One settlement agency told Herzig that they have about 700 refugees who need affordable, permanent housing, which is in short supply in the Greater Toronto Area.
“There’s a real need for property managers to step up and help provide affordable housing,” Herzig said.
Meantime, JIAS is working with Lifeline Afghanistan, a central hub for refugee co-ordination in Toronto, and other agencies to help where it can. JIAS has staff who are fluent in Dari and Farsi and who have been assisting with translation.
“The people we’re helping right now came with absolutely nothing and the funding they have doesn’t get them very far,” Herzig said.
Those seeking to volunteer, provide new winter clothing or help with housing, are encouraged to contact JIAS at Jiastoronto.org.
Other Jewish agencies are also helping Afghan refugees who have arrived in Toronto. B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center are collecting donations for food, computers, cell phones and school supplies. So far, about $20,000 has been raised and food packages have been delivered to the Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Service.
On Oct. 10, from 2-4 p.m. the organizations will be accepting donations of laptops, tablets, and other electronics in working condition, as well as toys, at Temple Sinai, 210 Wilson Ave., Toronto.
Meanwhile, Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, has issued a call to the federal government to expedite the arrival of Afghans, who can enter as refugees or in other immigrant categories. The synagogue also calls on Canada to expand humanitarian support to Afghanistan and neighbouring countries that have temporarily accepted Afghan refugees.
“We wanted our message not to be just vague statements but very practicable, tangible steps the government could take to make a difference,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a past president of Darchei Noam. “We have reason to believe they (the federal government) want to see the enlarged target number met as expeditiously as possible.”
The letter is also being sent across the Jewish community and has already received a “very supportive” response from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, he said.
In 2015, Darchei Noam was the first synagogue to sponsor a Syrian refugee family and it provided advice to other Jewish groups that followed. The congregation hopes to sponsor an Afghan family, Siemiatycki said.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, as of Sept. 27, Canada had received applications from 13,400 refugee applicants from around the world and approved 9,400.