Diversity is a Strength: An Interview with Gail Schnabl

Gail Schnabl is the Diocesan Refugee Coordinator. I had the chance to sit down with her and ask some questions about refugee work in Rupert’s Land. – KN

Can you tell me about the refugee work of the diocese? How long have you been involved and what is your role?

Each constituent group, which is the various churches, have committees that work on sponsorship and settlement. My position as the Refugee Coordinator is essentially to manage all of these different groups, to promote refugee work in the diocese, and to consult with and educate the various groups about the requirements on them when they undertake the sponsorship and settlement of newcomers. I also communicate with and manage the documentation required by Immigration.

I’ve been involved in refugee work for about 26 years, but I’ve been the Coordinator for the last nine or 10 years. Before that, I was part of Crossed Hands Refugee Committee, which is a partnership between St. Paul’s, Fort Garry and St. Matthew’s, and has been in existence for probably 30+ years.

The diocese itself has been involved in doing refugee work since 1979, when they sponsored the first [Vietnamese] boat people. This is now, in fact, the 40th anniversary of private sponsorship in Canada through private sponsorship agreement holders. The diocese is a sponsorship agreement holder; we sign a contract or an agreement with the government to do sponsorship, which puts certain expectations on us.

What are some misconceptions about refugees that you’ve come across in your work?

Well, I think people have the impression that refugees take more from us than they give to the wider community. You hear people say, “They’re taking our jobs,” “They’re living on welfare,” and of course there are some refugees who are not able to support themselves financially, but that is the minority. For the most part, refugees begin to work before their year of sponsorship is up, and, if they can’t, often the reason is that they’re going to school to improve their English. So that’s a big misconception.

And that they take our jobs. Research has shown that refugees contribute to our economy and to our taxes quite significantly, and, in some cases, are employed and make greater contributions than people who were born here.

Why do you think people have these misconceptions? How do we begin to change their minds?

It’s very timely that we’re even talking about this with the federal election in the offing, because there is, sadly, a rise in this kind of view, that we’ve got too many immigrants. I think a large part of this is that immigrants of all kinds are seen as the “other”; they are not like us, they have different values, they have different aspirations, they don’t look the same, they don’t dress the same. I think that’s at the root of the problem – as it is often at the root of other problems – that the other person is seen as different.

Most Canadians probably really do not have an opportunity get to know refugees on a personal basis, so they have this image. And sometimes what gets in the media is kind of the extreme of people who have done things wrong, or people who are in the criminal system, or we have these wonderful stories about how we have helped people.

Do you think that a benefit of different faith groups working together to help refugees is that they address some of these misconceptions?

I often think, when I’m meeting newcomers and have gotten to know them, I think “I wish the greater population had this opportunity to actually sit down and talk, and to find out that – yeah they dress differently, but, you know, they have the same aspirations for their children as we do, and they want a kind of life that is peaceful, where they can have a job and live comfortably.”

So, I think that when faith groups get together to sponsor and then help settle, they do get to know newcomers. They might not become life-long friends, but they do get to know newcomers on a personal basis. They aren’t “the other” anymore.

I think it’s easy to forget that most of our Canadian population is made up of immigrants – my grandparents were immigrants.

My parents were immigrants; my husband’s an immigrant. The thing is, a century ago, the first part of the 20th century, it was mainly the British who were here in any positions of authority and prestige, and they didn’t want the Ukrainians, they didn’t want the Germans, they didn’t want the Poles. So it’s just kind of shifted. All of those white, mainly Christian groups feel they don’t want these other people who are different because they are a different colour or a different religion. So, I think when people get involved [in sponsorship], they get to know newcomers, and that helps shift their perspective.

There has been so much conflict around immigration lately, like with detention camps at the U.S.-Mexico border. How can faith groups respond to that conflict?

When you’re in conversations with people who make statements like, “We have to watch these people who are getting in,” “We have to be careful about who we’re letting in,” “We have to keep the numbers down because it’s going to change what our country is,” you have to respond in a way that challenges those statements or provide some information.

Yes, ultimately people from diverse backgrounds come here, and it changes us. But that’s inevitable. We are not the same country we were 100 years ago, and we won’t be 100 years from now. There are good things in that. Diversity is a strength, not something you have to be afraid of.

Do you know of any different faith organizations working together to help refugees in Winnipeg or Manitoba? Does the diocese work with any other organizations in Winnipeg?

A refugee’s religion, let’s say, has never been the prime basis for sponsorship. To the extent that I know, we have sponsored people from all different backgrounds.

There are different ways to talk about working with different faith groups. Through Crossed Hands, we have sponsored a lot of Somalis, who want to bring their relatives here. We partner with them; they are co-sponsors. And we have been doing this for years and years and years.

More recently, we have partnered with the Jewish Child and Family Services of Winnipeg to bring over quite a number of Yazidis. They are a child welfare agency, but they are also a settlement agency. For this particular partnership, they have raised all the money themselves, through an initiative they have called Operation Ezra, to support these families who are quite vulnerable and have been war-affected.

We have also partnered with the Canadian Palestinian Association of Manitoba to bring Palestinians from a couple of different places. One family has just completed its one-year sponsorship, and part of another family just arrived in July, with the other part arriving in September.

We do ongoing sponsorship of Muslims from Somali and Sudan. We have also sponsored a lot of Eritreans, who are Orthodox, with their relatives here.

I just wanted to add this: there is a group in our diocese from Emmanuel Mission, who are trying to bring their relatives here, but they need support. I would like to see some other groups from the diocese who could step up to that need or offer some financial support. Folks from Emmanuel Mission are quite capable of the settlement tasks, like registering at Manitoba Health, but they may not have the financial resources that Immigration expects.

We’ve been involved in refugee sponsorship for 40 years; it’s so important that the diocese continues to do this.

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