Her grandfather was forced to flee from Palestine. Religious persecution chased her father out of Cuba. Growing up in a refugee and immigrant faith community in Kitchener, discussion and tales of hardship became a recurring sound for MPACS graduate, Kaylee Perez. “Surrounded by these conversations growing up, I grew to love the aspects of cross-cultural communication,” she said of her upbringing, which led her down a path of peace work that spanned not only cultures, but continents. 

Kaylee’s journey with peace work began with her undergraduate degree in Global Studies, where she enrolled in an international placement course that took her to Cape Town, South Africa. She spent three months working with the Cape Town Refugee Center – an implementing partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The contrast was eye opening for me,” said Kaylee, “seeing the richest of the rich living right next to the poorest of the poor. It made me process so much about my own privilege.”  

After the three-month term, Kaylee returned to Canada, bringing with her a strong, newly built desire for peace and refugee work. She joined the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (known today as Compass) for a six-month internship before being offered a full-time role, solidifying her place in the field. Eager to push further and pursue leadership opportunities, she knew that a master’s degree would be the logical next step, leading her to enroll in Grebel’s Master of Peace and Conflict Studies program. 

“I’ve never been one with a passion for academics,” laughed Kaylee. “I’d always been driven to just get the knowledge I needed to get out there in the field and do my part. So, the practicality of Grebel’s program stood out to me. The many workshops, internship, and niche course opportunities were all so valuable in building the leadership skills I needed.” Kaylee also noted the advantage of being exposed to prominent thought leaders and community mobilizers early on in her career through the MPACS community. “With small cohorts, you get to know everyone very well. I still connect with some of my peers on a regular basis,” she said. 

After graduating, Kaylee joined Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as the Migration and Resettlement Associate for Ontario. MCC is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) with the Canadian Government which enables them to facilitate the private sponsorship for refugees – a highly effective practice, yet one that was unique to Canada until 2016. In 2016, the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) launched, a partnership between the Government of Canada, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the University of Ottawa and two foundations, which aimed to share Canada’s private sponsorship program with the world. With MCC as an instrumental partner in the creation of this program and an ongoing leader in the sector, Kaylee was invited to support the GRSI through providing training to community sponsorship organizations around the world including Argentina and Spain. She travelled to Argentina twice during a complex and exciting social and economic grassroots movement, where she trained and engaged with incredibly resilient civil society organizations. “It was incredible to get to be a part of this movement as it was beginning, to encourage and learn from community leaders who carry a strong vision for refugee welcome, despite challenging socio-economic factors in their community,” shared Kaylee.  

Kaylee’s work was just beginning. Now part of a Global Sponsor Network, she has travelled to Ireland, Spain, and Portugal to discuss the joys, challenges, and logistics of refugee sponsorship with civil society representatives from over 23 countries. Kaylee noted that her goal of this network is to “globally shift the narrative away from ‘fear of the other’ toward refugee welcome.” She said, “I have experienced first-hand the mutual transformation that occurs through refugee sponsorship when sponsors and newcomers do life together for a year – differences we fear fade away when you’re face to face. Being a refugee is just one part of who they are. There are so many gifts that they can bring to serve the needs of different communities. We need each other.” 

Now serving as the National Migration and Resettlement Coordinator for MCC in Canada, Kaylee co-coordinates their network of 5 provincial offices to support strategic collaboration and program delivery. MCC is one of over 135 SAHs in Canada who are members of the SAH Association, the umbrella organization that represents the needs of SAHs before the Canadian government and external partners. Currently serving as Chair of this Association, Kaylee regularly engages the government, the UNHCR, and key actors in the refugee resettlement sector to strengthen this program. This program both relies on and facilitates a powerful civil society and government partnership, one that she loves and is challenged by getting to serve in this bridge building capacity.  

“How do we invite more people into the refugee welcome movement?” is a question that Kaylee often finds herself posing. In her decade-long career in the refugee resettlement sector, Kaylee has served with countless ordinary people who come together to accomplish extraordinary things that transform communities.  

“I see the private refugee sponsorship program as a long-term peacebuilding movement in Canada. It teaches us how to live at peace amongst differences and is a practical response to an overwhelming crisis,” said Kaylee. “I am grateful for the many ways my MPACs degree has equipped me to engage in this work.”  

Kaylee's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Farhan Saeed