Joseph Bya and Hennie Velema, two members of the refugee sponsorship committee at Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Cornwall, Ont., recently shared their experience and expertise with staff members of Resonate Global Mission to help other congregations with newcomer welcoming strategies. The story of refugee sponsorship, welcome, friendship, and vibrant worship is one of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Immanuel CRC’s experience with refugee sponsorship began in 2015 when member George Velema, moved by the Syrian refugee crisis, contacted staff at World Renew, the CRC’s hunger relief and development agency that is a sponsorship agreement holder in Canada, to inquire about sponsorship. Velema followed up with the council of Immanuel CRC, a congregation with 40 member families at the time, and also approached the neighboring Community CRC at Dixon’s Corners to form a joint refugee sponsorship. Velema chaired the joint committee, which quickly raised $5,000 in startup funds. The committee worked with the staff at World Renew to find a small refugee family (four members or fewer) hoping to move to Canada. From the list provided, the committee chose the Bya family, living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as refugees from Myanmar.
Joseph Bya, his wife Sana, and their two children arrived May 26, 2016, in Canada. The committee got to work, helping the young family to find their place in a new country and culture. Before the full support year ended, Joseph had found full-time work, and the family was on its way to purchasing their home.
Although the sponsorship committee had not specifically asked to sponsor a Christian family, they learned that Joseph was a trained Christian evangelist. Some time after the Bya family connected with the Immanuel congregation, worship team leader Andrew Bowman invited Joseph to join the worship band. Currently Joseph Bya plays guitar, while his son Eleazar plays the keyboard.
As the Byas began their new life in Canada, the committee went back to work preparing to sponsor another refugee family. This time they were matched with a Congolese family, Ramazan Masumbuko and his wife Hasha, who were living in a refugee camp in Malawi. Introduced to the committee as a family of four, when the Maumbuko family arrived in Canada in May 2018, they were then a family of five including a newborn. The Masumbuko family joined the Immanuel congregation, and before long Hasha was invited to sing with the worship team. Once Ramazan had found employment, he also enrolled in part-time studies at the University of Ottawa.
In early 2020, when the COVID-19 virus was declared a pandemic in Canada, worship services and other church activities were paused at Immanuel CRC as they were in most other congregations, in response to community precautions. Meanwhile, the refugee sponsorship committee continued with a new focus, helping the original sponsored families to privately sponsor extended family members through the family reunification program. George Velema was now too ill to chair the committee, and he persuaded Ramazan Masumbuko to assume the committee leadership.
And the church grew in other ways. The refugee families who joined Immanuel CRC have encouraged friends and acquaintances from the refugee diaspora to worship with them. Worship leader Andrew Bowman has found a wealth of talent among the newcoming members. Stefano Aristarique from Malawi is a drummer, and Matthew Gwar from Myanmar is contributing as a professional musician.
When Velema died in October 2021, his wife, Hennie, who had served on the sponsorship committee alongside her husband, asked that anyone wishing to contribute in his memory to direct their giving to Immanuel CRC’s refugee sponsorship fund. “For George, what began as compassion grew to be his passion,” she said.
The newcomer families certainly share that passion. “You might have financial challenges to support refugee families right now, but when you step forward and reach out to the needy, you will never regret it,” said Joseph Bya, referencing Matthew 25:34-36. He added, “When refugees come to your church, the church will become more alive, that’s for sure.”
Hennie Velema appreciates the color, energy, and joy that the newcomer families have brought to Immanuel. And the personal connections. Ramazan Mazumbuko had formed a strong bond with her late husband George, calling him “Papa.” In May 2023, when Mazumbuko graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in International Development, he invited Hennie to attend the graduation event as his Mama. “I love it; I was honored to be there,” Velema said.
And the welcome continues. “Ramazan is now working for the International Social and Economic Council of Ottawa-Carlton, welcoming refugees into the Resettlement Assistance Program and coordinating housing. In that role he meets a lot of people, and some of them show up at Immanuel Church,” Velema said.