Couple with 11 kids arrive in ‘heaven’
Even in a mild winter, not many people arriving in Edmonton in January would immediately go so far as to say they’d come to “heaven from hell.”
But that was the heartfelt reaction that Jasem and Alieh Khalaf typed into a smartphone translation app as they arrived exhausted with their 11 children from Lebanon via Montreal.
Four years ago, Jasem had run a successful tile business in the Aleppo region of wartorn Syria. By serendipity or providence, perhaps, that’s the very same trade practised by the father of Riverbend United’s last refugee family — from Kosovo. A connection between the two tilers has already been made.
But the real story behind the 13 Khalaf additions to the Canadian mosaic is the hard work of big-hearted volunteers, who quickly organized themselves after realizing the need last fall. With help and support from the local Islamic Friendship Centre, members of the southwest Edmonton congregation spent weeks preparing meals and setting up a duplex in the east Edmonton neighbourhood where the family now lives.
The Khalaf family were greeted at Edmonton International Airport on Jan. 24, and spent their first five nights at the six-bedroom
home of Riverbend members Tom and Sandy LaPointe. “The Khalafs have been most gracious and thankful,” says Sandy. “They adapted quickly, and helped with cooking from the beginning.”
The family’s first few Alberta weeks were spent acclimatizing and sorting out logistics, such as registering the younger children up for school, and lining up English classes for Jasem, Alieh and the two oldest boys.
After more than four years of precarious uncertainty, work has finally begun on building their new lives in a Canadian paradise.
— David Evans
Byron United just keeps saying ‘yes’
It’s been 20 years since Byron United in London, Ont., last sponsored refugees, but looking at their recent work, you’d think they’d been at it for years.
A new journey began for the church in 2013 when they were approached by a Syrian man who was connected with their congregation, asking if they would consider sponsoring his two sisters and their families who were living as refugees in Jordan. The family had some money so could provide for most of their own needs. The sponsorships were approved in February 2014, with the first family arriving in April 2015, the second family in June.
Several months ago, London Mayor Matt Brown contacted Rev. Greg Brawn, asking if Byron United would consider sponsoring more families if the funds were provided from other faith groups and individuals. Brawn said yes. With about $60,000 from Metropolitan United as well as donations from First-St. Andrews United and Littlewood United, a third sister, recently widowed with three teenagers, as well as two other unrelated families, arrived this past February.
For Brawn and the congregation, welcoming new people to their community is their greatest reward. “The experience has been perfect,” he says, “other than the long wait for their families to arrive.”
— Nancy Loucks-McSloy
‘To do nothing was not acceptable’
When 18 members of two Belleville, Ont., United churches met last September to discuss the global refugee crisis and refugee sponsorship, it didn’t take long to move from talk to action. They had seen the photo of Alan Kurdi, heard daunting global statistics and learned how they could work through church channels.
Ian Sutherland, a member of Bridge Street United, says “to do nothing was not acceptable.” The group he chairs, called United Syrian Family Support (Belleville), grew to include 65 volunteers from St. Matthew’s, Eastminster and Bridge Street United churches, the local Baha’i community, the Islamic Society of Belleville and the community at large.
Within a few weeks, working through General Council Office refugee staff, the group was linked with the Al Mansour family of five, including parents and three sons aged 4 to 16. The Syrian family had lived in a camp in Lebanon for two years.
By the beginning of December, the sponsorship team had completed paperwork needed for a two-year sponsorship with additional government funding (due to one child’s medical needs); rented, furnished and equipped a three-bedroom apartment; connected with local schools and English teachers; and raised nearly $60,000.
When the Al Mansours arrived in early December, they were welcomed by much of the sponsorship group, including several Arabic-speakers, and taken to their new home. Since then, they’ve been introduced to Canadian life — including snowshoeing — and have begun schooling and English-language training.
With more money in hand than is likely needed for the Al Mansours’ support, the group has decided to sponsor some of their family members who are still stuck in refugee camps, and bring them to Belleville.
Says Rev. Jean Wilson, interim minister at Eastminster United: “That’s our plan and our hope and dream. But we understand it may take years.”
— Mike Milne
Safety at last for three generations
“I left Syria because my house and the whole neighbourhood was bombed,” Sawsan Qarqouz says through an interpreter.
She fled first to Damascus with her three sons and father-in-law, and then onward to Lebanon. Her husband, Hussein, came later.
Not long after the Qarqouz family settled into a Lebanese refugee camp, Rev. Bill Steadman, minister at St. Andrew’s United in Sudbury, Ont., was in Beirut, representing the denomination at a World Council of Churches meeting. “The whole Syrian crisis was beginning for both Christians and Muslims,” he remembers. “The [idea] of wanting to do something significant started there.”
Last fall, St. Andrew’s United decided to sponsor a Syrian family, and church member Joanne Ross headed the sponsorship committee. “Our church council felt very strongly that we needed to respond as a community — a humanitarian community,” she says. “It was just the response that we would hope for if we were in that position.”
With the help of the United Church’s head office the group chose the six-member Qarqouz family. “The father is a baker and we thought that would be a good fit with our community,” says Ross.
As the Qarqouzes are Muslim, the St. Andrew’s group partnered with the Sudbury Mosque. “Because of the language barriers and cultural barriers, we wanted [to provide] the kind of support they’d need,” says Steadman.
On New Year’s Eve, the family arrived in Canada. But Hussein’s father, Mohammad, 80, was held back due to a passport issue. He arrived about 10 days later. The couple has three boys ages 13, 11 and 10, and is expecting a baby. “I want my children to go to school and do well in school,” Sawsan says.
— Janice Leuschen
Prosthetic leg for war-injured teen
Omar al Diab, 14, lost a leg five years ago when a military vehicle in Syria ran him over. He took his first steps on a new prosthetic limb last November, one month after arriving in Winnipeg.
Omar, who was hit while walking home from school, is part of an extended family of 24 Syrian refugees, welcomed to Canada by Refuge Winnipeg, a coalition of United Churches, the Manitoba Islamic Association, other faith groups and individuals.
The Al Diab family — three brothers, their wives and their 18 children — have relatives in Winnipeg who wanted to bring them to Canada but felt overwhelmed by the costs. Refuge Winnipeg, led by Westworth United, which was the official sponsor, sprang into action in the summer of 2014, eventually raising $155,000.
Barbara Wynes, chair of the sponsorship committee, filled out roughly 150 pages of application forms for the private sponsorship. The next task was to find housing and gather furniture and clothing. A local quilting group made 21 quilts, one for each child and couple, with the phrase “Welcome to Canada” and the person’s name, in Arabic and English. Wynes was among the volunteers who greeted the Al Diabs at the airport last October: “It was exciting to finally see them.”
The family is settling into their new home. The kids tried the snow slides at the Festival du Voyageur in February. One of the fathers used to play on Syria’s national soccer team; now the men play pick-up soccer on Saturdays at the University of Winnipeg.
But it may be Omar’s prosthesis that has given the family its greatest joy so far. As Omar told the CBC: “Thanks to you all, thanks to [Refuge Winnipeg], thanks to Canada. . . . I love Canada.”
— Susan Peters
Interfaith coalition reunites family of 15
In the Bonnechere Valley, about 130 kilometres west of Ottawa, a coalition calling itself Valley Welcome brought together United, Anglican and Lutheran churches, an area Islamic association, plus community members to sponsor one small Syrian refugee family. But even before a young married couple arrived in Eganville, Ont., in January, the sponsorship had morphed into a reunification project for an extended family of 15.
Weeks after welcoming Bassel Abou Habra and Bushra Albashash to their new home in the manse of Melville United, the sponsors were able to divert Albashash’s sister, her husband and three children from a placement in New Brunswick. Plans are now under way to bring over eight more members of the extended family.
Ed Turner, lay minister at Melville United, says the local ministerial association discussed refugee sponsorship for a few months before joining forces with a community-based group last September.
Initially, says Turner, some people in the “very conservative” area “were wondering if we were doing the right thing.” Public meetings helped address concerns. After that, it took only 12 weeks to raise $70,000.
The first young couple arrived without a hitch in January. But it took a few tense days, delicate negotiations with immigration officials and a sponsorship group member’s personal connections in Ottawa to get sister Rawda Albashash, Abdulkader Kneifati and their three children to Eganville. They hope that the Albashash’s parents, another married sister and her husband, plus four more teenage siblings, will arrive soon.
Locals are introducing the family to life in northern Ontario; volunteers from an Islamic association in nearby Deep River, Ont., are providing interpretation. A joyous small-town-style welcoming event drew about 250 people to an Eganville church basement.
Says community volunteer Leslie Soopalu, “We have an awful lot of kind and caring people, no matter what their religious or political beliefs.”
WHITE ROCK, B.C.
Paris attack inspires interfaith effort
What began as an effort among three United Churches in southwest British Columbia to work more closely together has grown into an interfaith refugee sponsorship program that also includes their Muslim neighbours.
First United in White Rock along with Crescent United and Sunnyside United in nearby Surrey recently decided to worship together more often and to partner on more outreach projects, as possible precursors to amalgamation. The congregations were already co-operating on local outreach efforts. Sponsoring a Syrian family would add a global component.
That effort was just getting off the ground a year and a half ago when terrorist attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo brought local misunderstandings about Islam to the surface. To help clear them up, the fledgling church refugee settlement group held an event called Meet Your Muslim Neighbour, featuring a Muslim scholar.
“We did a little talk show, filled the church,” says Crescent United council chair Peter Jones. “But guess who shows up? The Muslim neighbours. We didn’t even know there was a local Muslim association.”
As well as helping seed interfaith understanding, the local Muslims joined the refugee sponsorship plan, working on the steering committee, contributing financially and providing Arabic-language interpreters when a Syrian family of six arrived this past January.
The family — two parents, one of whom is disabled, plus four young adult children — are learning English and adjusting to life in Canada, and enjoyed a well-attended welcome reception in February.
“It’s been a good partnership,” says Adad Syed, president of the White Rock Muslim Association. “We are bridging a gap of understanding in the community.”
— Mike Milne
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