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‘Life-changing’: Call for refugee sponsors as study suggests 4M Canadians open to it

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Karina Reid watched as the little boy, fascinated by the running tap water, jumped into the bathtub.

“This is the best day of my life!” then four-year-old Delphin said.

Delphin and his pregnant mother Atosha Ngage had just arrived in Canada earlier that day in February 2019. They stayed at a refugee camp in Namibia after leaving their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The little family arrived in Canada through the Blended Visa Office Referred Refugees (BVOR) program, one of the country’s three resettlement streams to sponsor refugees. Reid, along with five of her friends, sponsored Ngage, who was pregnant with her second child, and Delphin.

“It was the most life-changing experience for them but also for me,” Reid said in an interview. “It changed my entire view of the world.”

Reid is one of the many Canadians who have brought a refugee family to Canada via the BVOR program. It’s the most distinctive of the three refugee resettlement programs; the others are Government-Assisted Refugees (GAR) and Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR).

The BVOR program allows private citizens and non-governmental organizations to step up and sponsor individuals or families with whom they don’t have prior relationships.

“We also refer to this kind of sponsorship model as ‘sponsoring the stranger,’” said Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, a communications hub that works to build inclusion and welcome newcomers.

Taylor said people in her circle know how “powerful” and “transformational” the experience of sponsorship can be for both newcomers and sponsors. Usually, these stories are relayed through word of mouth, such as Reid’s case.

However, there has been no data or resources to help promote the BVOR program properly, Taylor said.

“So recruiting new sponsors has long been a struggle,” she said.

In the hopes to rectify this, Refugee 613 partnered with the Environics Institute to conduct a market study on refugee sponsorship in Canada. The project was funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada but all data gathered are owned by Refugee 613 and Environics.

The study involved a representative sample of 3,000 Canadians ages 25 and over and with household incomes of $30,000 or more, which translates to roughly 24 million individuals.

Results suggest close to one-fifth of the target population, who haven’t been involved in sponsoring a refugee or refugee family yet, say they could definitely or likely see themselves participating in the program at some point over the next few years.

“This translates into a pool of approximately four million Canadians who are open to potential recruitment into the program,” the report reads.

In contrast with BVOR, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program has had no issues with recruiting sponsors, Taylor said.

“For the most part, PSR sponsors are motivated because they are sponsoring a relative or a friend or a friend of a friend,” she said. “So the PSR program has largely become a way to reunite families.”

Between 2015 and 2016, when Canadians became exposed to the idea of supporting Syrian refugees and the issue of refugee resettlement became an issue, Taylor said the BVOR program was oversubscribed.

However, since then, the program’s annual target of around 1,000 people has never been met.

“That causes a lot of pressure within government if you’re not meeting your targets,” Taylor said. “You’re seen as a failed program.”

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Friday that BVOR is one of those streams that had some challenges around “finding a proper alignment between what the community needs and what is the best fit for refugees.”

Taylor said the new data proves that there’s still interest in sponsoring refugees and refugee families to Canada.

“The next question is: how do we reach them and what messages do we share with them to show them that not only is there still a need, there’s a whole spectrum of organizations ready and willing to walk people through this process?” she said.

“They may just find it’s the most powerful experience of their lives.”

It’s been more than two years since Reid and her friend picked up Atosha Ngage and Delphin at the airport. Since then, there have been powerful memories shared between people who were once complete strangers.

They’ve made snow angels, gone to the pool and shared lots of laughs.

Reid said the program is one of the best-hidden gems in Canada. Through it, she met people she would treasure for a long time.

“The BVOR program is life-changing,” Reid said. “It opens doors to curiosity, understanding and wanting to make your community a better place like.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2021.

Arvin Joaquin, The Canadian Press

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“Waning immunity?” Experts say term leads to false understanding of COVID-19 vaccines

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The idea of waning immunity has picked up steam in recent weeks, with some countries using it to justify rolling out third-dose COVID-19 vaccine boosters to their populations. But immunologists say the concept has been largely misunderstood.

While antibodies — proteins created after infection or vaccination that help prevent future invasions from the pathogen — do level off over time, experts say that’s supposed to happen.

And it doesn’t mean we’re not protected against COVID-19.

Jennifer Gommerman, an immunologist with the University of Toronto, said the term “waning immunity” has given people a false understanding of how the immune system works.

“Waning has this connotation that something’s wrong and there isn’t,” she said. “It’s very normal for the immune system to mount a response where a ton of antibodies are made and lots of immune cells expand. And for the moment, that kind of takes over.

“But it has to contract, otherwise you wouldn’t have room for subsequent immune responses.”

Antibody levels ramp up in the “primary response” phase after vaccination or infection, “when your immune system is charged up and ready to attack,” said Steven Kerfoot, an associate professor of immunology at Western University.

They then decrease from that “emergency phase,” he added. But the memory of the pathogen and the body’s ability to respond to it remains.

Kerfoot said B-cells, which make the antibodies, and T-cells, which limit the virus’s ability to cause serious damage, continue to work together to stave off severe disease long after a vaccine is administered. While T-cells can’t recognize the virus directly, they determine which cells are infected and kill them off quickly.

Recent studies have suggested the T-cell response is still robust several months following a COVID-19 vaccination.

“You might get a minor infection … (but) all of those cells are still there, which is why we’re still seeing very stable effectiveness when it comes to preventing severe disease,” Kerfoot said.

A pre-print study released this week by Public Health England suggested protection against hospitalization and death remains much higher than protection against infection, even among older adults.

So the concept of waning immunity depends on whether you’re measuring protection against infection or against severe disease, Kerfoot said.

Ontario reported 43 hospitalized breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated on Friday, compared to 256 unvaccinated hospitalized infections. There were 795 total new cases in the province that day, 582 among those who weren’t fully vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.

British Columbia, meanwhile, saw 53 fully vaccinated COVID-19 patients hospitalized over the last two weeks, compared to 318 unvaccinated patients.

“You’ll hear people say that vaccines aren’t designed to protect infection, they’re designed to prevent severe disease,” Kerfoot said. “I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s the vaccine that’s designed to do one or another … that’s just how the immune system works.”

Moderna released real-world data this week suggesting its vaccine was 96 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization, even amidst the more transmissible Delta variant, and 87 per cent effective at preventing infection — down from the 94 per cent efficacy seen in the clinical trials last year.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said that dip “illustrates the impact of waning immunity and supports the need for a booster to maintain high levels of protection.”

Pfizer-BioNTech has argued the same with its own data, and an advisory panel to the U.S.-based Food and Drug Administration voted Friday to endorse third doses for those aged 65 and older, or at high risk for severe disease.

However, the panel rejected boosters for the general population, saying the pharmaceutical company had provided little safety data on extra jabs.

Gommerman said the efficacy data presented by Moderna doesn’t signal the need for a third dose.

“The fact it protects 87 per cent against infection, that’s incredible,” she said. “Most vaccines can’t achieve that.”

Bancel said Moderna’s research, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggested a booster dose could also extend the duration of the immune response by reupping neutralizing antibody levels.

But Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious physician in Mississauga, Ont., said looking solely at the antibody response is misleading, and could be falsely used as justification for an infinite number of boosters.

Israel, which has opened third doses for its citizens, recently talked about administering fourth doses in the near future.

“This idea of waning immunity is being exploited and it’s really concerning to see,” Chakrabarti said. “There’s this idea that antibodies mean immunity, and that’s true … but the background level of immunity, the durable T-cell stuff, hasn’t been stressed enough.”

While some experts maintain boosters for the general population are premature, they agree some individuals would benefit from a third jab.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended boosters for the immunocompromised, who don’t mount a robust immune response from a two-dose series.

Other experts have argued residents of long-term care, who were prioritized when the rollout began last December, may also soon need a third dose. The English study suggests immunity could be waning in older groups but not much — if at all — among those under age 65.

Chakrabarti said a decrease in protection among older populations could be due more to “overlapping factors,” including their generally weaker immune systems and congregate-living situations for those in long-term care.

“These are people at the highest risk of hospitalization,” he said. “Could (the length of time that’s passed following their doses) be playing a role? Yeah, maybe.”

While we still don’t know the duration of the immune response to COVID-19 vaccination, Gommerman said immune cells typically continue to live within bone marrow and make small amounts of antibodies for “decades.”

“And they can be quickly mobilized if they encounter a pathogen,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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Taliban-run Kabul municipality to female workers: Stay home

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Female employees in the Kabul city government have been told to stay home, with work only allowed for those who cannot be replaced by men, the interim mayor of Afghanistan’s capital said Sunday, detailing the latest restrictions on women by the new Taliban rulers.

Witnesses, meanwhile, said an explosion targeted a Taliban vehicle in the provincial city of Jalalabad, the second such deadly blast in as many days in an Islamic State stronghold.

The decision to prevent most female city workers from returning to their jobs is another sign that the Taliban, who overran Kabul last month, are enforcing their harsh interpretation of Islam despite initial promises by some that they would be tolerant and inclusive. In their previous rule in the 1990s, the Taliban had barred girls and women from schools, jobs and public life.

In recent days, the new Taliban government issued several decrees rolling back the rights of girls and women. It told female middle- and high school students that they could not return to school for the time being, while boys in those grades resumed studies this weekend. Female university students were informed that studies would take place in gender-segregated settings from now on, and that they must abide by a strict Islamic dress code. Under the U.S.-backed government deposed by the Taliban, university studies had been co-ed, for the most part.

On Friday, the Taliban shut down the Women’s Affairs Ministry, replacing it with a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice” and tasked with enforcing Islamic law.

On Sunday, just over a dozen women staged a protest outside the ministry, holding up signs calling for the participation of women in public life. “A society in which women are not active is (sic) dead society,” one sign read.

The protest lasted for about 10 minutes. After a short verbal confrontation with a man, the women got into cars and left, as Taliban in two cars observed from nearby. Over the past months, Taliban fighters had broken up several women’s protests by force.

Elsewhere, about 30 women, many of them young, held a news conference in a basement of a home tucked away in a Kabul neighborhood. Marzia Ahmadi, a rights activist and government employee now forced to sit at home, said they would demand the Taliban re-open public spaces to women.

“It’s our right,” she said. “We want to talk to them. We want to tell them that we have the same rights as they have.”

Most of the participants said they would try to leave the country if they had an opportunity.

The explosion Sunday in Jalalabad targeting a Taliban vehicle was the second such deadly blast in as many days in an Islamic State stronghold.

The Taliban and IS extremists are enemies, and fought each other even before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last month.

Witnesses sid Sunday’s blast targeted a vehicle of the border police, which is now run by the Taliban. Initial reports said five people were killed, including two civilians, among them a child. The Taliban were not immediately available for comment about possible casualties among their ranks.

Also on Sunday, interim Kabul Mayor Hamdullah Namony gave his first news conference since being appointed by the Taliban.

He said that before the Taliban takeover last month, just under one-third of close to 3,000 city employees were women, and that they had worked in all departments.

Namony said the female employees have been ordered to stay home, pending a further decision. He said exceptions were made for women who could not be replaced by men, including some in the design and engineering departments and the attendants of public toilets for women. Namony did not say how many female employees were forced to stay home.

“There are some areas that men can’t do it, we have to ask our female staff to fulfill their duties, there is no alternative for it,” he said.

Across Afghanistan, women in many areas have been told to stay home from jobs, both in the public and private sectors. However, the Taliban have not yet announced a uniform policy. The comments by the Kabul mayor were unusually specific and affected a large female work force that had been involved in running a sprawling city of more than 5 million people.

Namony also said the new government has begun removing security barriers in Kabul, a city that has endured frequent bombing and shooting attacks over the years. Such barriers — erected near ministries, embassies and private homes of politicians and warlords — had been commonplace in Kabul for years.

The mayor said private citizens would be charged for the work of taking down the barriers. While he said most barriers had been removed, reporters touring the city noted that barriers outside most government installations and embassies had been left in place.

The Taliban have tried to present themselves as guarantors of security, in hopes that this will win them support from a public still widely suspicious of their intentions. Under the previous government, a rise in crime had been a major concern for ordinary Afghans.

Perhaps the toughest challenge faced by the new Taliban rulers is the accelerated economic downturn. Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was plagued by major problems, including large-scale poverty, drought and heavy reliance on foreign aid for the state budget.

In a sign of growing desperation, street markets have sprung up in Kabul where residents are selling their belongings. Some of the sellers are Afghans hoping to leave the country, while others are forced to offer their meager belongings in hopes of getting money for the next meal.

“Our people need help, they need jobs, they need immediate help, they are not selling their household belongings for choice here,” said Kabul resident Zahid Ismail Khan, who was watching the activity in one of the impromptu markets.

“For a short-term people might try to find a way to live, but they would have no other choice to turn to begging in a longer term,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Istanbul contributed.

Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press

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