Agape Syrian refugee crisis worsens without adequate funding

Martin C. Barry

For the second time in three months, Agape is appealing for assistance in the midst of a funding crisis that the Chomedey-based charitable services agency claims has been brought about by the sudden arrival of hundreds of Syrian refugees and Quebec’s and Ottawa’s failure to compensate charities for the added burden they’ve taken on.

Food and furniture all gone

As reported by the Laval News in January, Agape’s usually-well stocked freezers of food as well as the basement storage areas of furniture have been depleted by the sudden surge in demand. But in the meantime, the organization’s administration says the government has done relatively little to compensate Agape for the responsibility it inadvertently accepted.

During an interview last week with the Laval News, Agape treasurer Elizabeth McLeod heaped praise on Chomedey Liberal MNA Guy Ouellette for emergency support she said he arranged for Agape to receive from Quebec and his office.

“I have the greatest admiration for him – Mr. Ouellette helped us in as much as he could,” she said without revealing the exact amount the Chomedey MNA’s office gave. All the same, she said the amount Ouellete provided “is a far cry from what is really happening. This is a beginning of some hope for us.”

Agape’s treasurer Elizabeth McLeod.
Agape’s freezer chests have been empty for weeks, according to the organization’s treasurer Elizabeth McLeod.

A bureaucratic response

While Ouellette also tried to intervene on Agape’s behalf for funding from the province’s immigration ministry, McLeod was not impressed with the bureaucratic response she got. “The representative at Immigration Quebec informed us that we’re not eligible for any amounts of financial support mainly because refugees are not our primary mission,” she said.

She said she replied, “It became my primary mission when the people started coming to Agape for help in December. As a charitable organization in Laval, it is my moral duty as a Christian to support my brothers and sisters who are poor and in need of food, clothing and furniture. And it has become our primary mission because it surpasses all other other needs of our community at the present time.”

With Agape’s freezers empty since April 12, according to McLeod, she said “the crisis has reached a point where we’re wondering how long are we going to last? I don’t want to be pessimistic, but in the meantime the situation is such that I don’t know where we’re going to be in May.”

A $25,000 shortfall

Agape operates with a regular staff of up to five salaried employees, including an executive-director, a social worker and support personnel. The organization also runs with the help of additional labour, cooking and maintenance workers who are paid through annually renewable employment program subsidies.

According to an Agape annual report three years ago, the organization budgeted for more than $600,000 in spending, including $225,000 in salaries and deducted benefits at that time. McLeod maintains that the sudden burden of having to deal with several dozen families of Syrian refugees has left the organization with a $25,000 shortfall that is jeopardizing Agape’s future. McLeod said Agape is also seeking a $30,000 subsidy for an Arabic-speaking interpreter to interact with the Syrian refugees so they can be propertly served.

McLeod contested a claim made by Laval-Les Îles Liberal MP Fayçal El-Khoury’s riding office that Ottawa was instrumental in helping provide emergency funding to Agape. “They didn’t arrange for a damn cent for me – they didn’t give me anything,” McLeod insisted, maintaining that the $22,000 sum in question was owed by Quebec to Agape since Agape’s 2014-2015 fiscal year.

MP claims application not received

In an interview last week, El-Khoury said Agape was repeatedly invited by his political attaché, Karine Sahakian, to apply to the federal government for assistance. “She asked many times to please apply in order to help,” El-Khoury said, while adding that he kept in contact with Sahakian whenever he was in Ottawa so that she could inform him of the application file number and he could try to have it expedited.

El-Khoury maintained adamantly that he was told by Sahakian that Agape had not responded to his office’s requests. “Now they are coming and crying,” he said of Agape’s situation. “I will see what I can do, but if there is no application the ministry will give no money.”

Help coming, says MP’s office

El-Khoury’s office also claimed that an outreach was undertaken in order to free up an amount due to Agape that the provincial government was holding onto. “We reached out to Mr. Guy Ouellette’s office and we solved that issue,” said Sahakian, adding that the $22,000 in question was paid around a month ago to cover outstanding payroll.

In the meantime, according to the the Liberal MP’s office, some good news is that additional funding for cash-strapped charitable organizations like Agape is supposed to be made available by Ottawa soon. “There’s a new plan that Mr. El-Khoury will announce to the public,” said Sahakian. As well, she said El-Khoury’s office is arranging for Arabic-speaking volunteers to donate their time at Agape to serve the Syrian refugees.