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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

On July 1, Canada's Refugee Resettlement System Saving Persecuted Communities

In a ballroom in suburban Toronto, Pakistani refugees who fled religious persecution celebrated their freedom. Canada's example of providing a refuge for persecuted religious minorities is worthy of emulation. On Canada Day on July 1, many persecuted people will be celebrating how Canada's generous system has forever changed their lives.

I saw this firsthand after coming up from Washington, DC, to speak at a memorial event for a slain Pakistani advocate named Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and government minister murdered by the Pakistani Taliban in March 2011 for his activism. Sean Fraser, Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, gave a recorded statement for the event, along with the U.S. religious freedom ambassador Rashad Hussain, His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousaf Raza Gillani, and others. Also attending the event in Toronto were liberal and conservative MPs, as well as local officials.

But it was not a sad event. On the contrary, the Pakistanis in attendance were celebrating their new life in Canada, free from fear or violence plaguing their home and so many countries worldwide. The event host was Shahbaz Bhatti's brother Peter, who has lived in Toronto for decades. An immigrant himself to Canada, Peter understands the plight of persecuted minorities and the haven Canada provides. Through his small non-profit in his spare time, he rescues Pakistani Christians from harm's way and brings them to the GTA.

Our countries share many similarities and have many differences, But shared values around human rights and religious freedom is a strong commonality, When I worked at the U.S. Department of State, Canada was a steadfast partner in advocating for human rights.

And our northern neighbor is a global leader in welcoming the persecuted. Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program stands out for how it allows the government to partner with private groups that can sponsor eligible refugees abroad. Through this, Peter and others can extend a helping hand and rescue the vulnerable out of harm's way.

Canada's sponsorship program is an innovation many want the United States to adopt. Last year, the Biden administration issued an Executive Order directing agencies to explore a community sponsorship program. Events in Afghanistan led the administration to launch the Sponsor Circle Program last year. Russia's February invasion of Ukraine spurred a similar sponsorship program for Ukrainian refugees this year. Hopefully, these can be made permanent.

The impact of Canada's long-standing approach to sponsorship was evident in Toronto. I experienced firsthand the effect of Canada's welcoming posture during the event.

Asya Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother of five sentenced to death in 2010 on a bogus accusation, made an unannounced appearance. Canada had agreed to provide her shelter, along with her family. She shared about her imprisonment and how her faith in God kept her going, even when pressured to convert in prison. She told me how thankful she was for the safety of Canada since her release in 2018.

Other recent arrivals echoed this sentiment. At the event, 30 refugees gathered at the front of the hall, their futures forever brighter. I met with a mother who fled Pakistan with her husband, daughter, and young son. They had journeyed to Thailand to escape radicals forcing her underage daughter to convert and marry. Her husband tragically died in Thailand, leaving them destitute and in limbo. Peter had met them and was able to bring them to safety through Canada's immigration system.

There is a world of suffering people needing help. The current refugee system is overwhelmed. Canada's willingness to be a haven for the persecuted through sponsorship extends the possibility of rescue to the suffering. It is a posture more countries should follow, especially the United States and Europe.

As one Pakistani Canadian said during the event, "these people came here to live in freedom. To pray how they want. To live how they want." So when the organizers played the Canadian national anthem, the audience sang with gusto and conviction – "The True North strong and free." I'm sure many new Canadians will be doing so again on July 1.

Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on ending 21st-century persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

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