BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
I have often been called upon to deliver “a few words of welcome” at various events in my role as pastor. These words are usually innocuous, but necessary gestures of hospitality offered to convey our appreciation to those who have gathered. I doubt if anyone could recall much of what I had said 15 minutes after I had spoken, but then I was communicating temporary congeniality for the time that we were together. Neither the words, nor the welcome was meant to last beyond the event’s allotted time.
The welcome that we are extending to 25,000 Syrian refugees who are currently arriving in our country, however, is anything but temporary, and extends beyond mere words. We are not inviting them to share in a brief encounter, but to commit to our collective life together as a nation. In this case, the welcome needs to be deep, lasting, and courageous because this act of hospitality holds the potential to change our lives as much, if not more, than those whom we welcome.
Even though we are early in this process, we have already encountered some challenges that have forced us to confront our established values and practices. The greatest challenge at present seems to be the lack of affordable housing in the settlement regions offering the greatest opportunity for these new Canadians. This housing crisis is not a new issue for Canadians. It has been festering for some time, but a sudden influx of new people in need of affordable housing that was already in dire short supply has once again raised awareness of this ongoing problem that faces many Canadians. Plenty of inexpensive housing is probably available in smaller centres with limited economic opportunity, but few can afford to live where the prospects for making a living are slim to none.
People need to be able to afford to live close to where they can work, but a lack of commitment to a national housing policy has further exacerbated an already precarious social situation. Private markets will not build inexpensive housing in the quantities needed, and governments are reluctant to assume the cost. Private charities like Habitat for Humanity can help a bit, but this may be the opportunity for us to organize a meaningful collective response to this crisis.
Furthermore, our current planning policies allow for few housing options other than condominiums, apartments, and single family dwellings on separate plots of land. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to offer some input into the planning process in Halton Region on behalf of a Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Diversity. We argued that the plans, if they were to be truly reflective and affirmative of diversity, needed to include dwellings that allowed for extended and multiple families living in one unit. Schools were being constructed in new neighbourhoods based on estimates of one, two, and three children per household, but their capacity was being overwhelmed on the first day of school because multiple families were sending five, six and seven children from the same household.
If we are to welcome Syrian families with large numbers of children, and extended families, we will need to find a way for them to live together in one dwelling without the danger of overcrowding or of exhausting all of their sponsors’ funds on housing alone. The Children of Abraham Together sponsorship, upon which I opined last fall, found suitable housing for their large family only with some difficulty, and the intervention of a builder who offered a time-limited deal on a dwelling in Mississauga. If the earliest arrivals are facing this level of difficulty with housing, what prospects will the later arriving families face?
Welcoming people to a new life in a new country is more than the expression of mere words and sentiments. It will prove to be an act of courage and generosity that will require us to examine our own values and priorities, and change some of the ways in which we live. The arrival of these refugees has returned the critical issue of affordable housing to the public consciousness, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, it might prove to be but the beginning of much needed social renewal.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.