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The Elnabrees family attend a Come and Go Tea at St. Stephen United in Burlington, Ont., in March. Photo by Michael Nash

Special report: Syrian refugees

More than 300 congregations mobilized to help Syrian refugees. A sampling follows.

By Various Writers

The Elnabreeses: reunited
A family of 19 Palestinian refugees, former residents of Syria, are getting resettled in Hamilton, thanks to the efforts of their own relatives and seven United churches

In their wanderings, it seems the Elnabrees family has been everywhere except where they really belong. They’ve bounced from one world to another, one war to the next, one upheaval to a bigger one and then a bigger one still: Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Syria.

Where they belong is, of course, together. Once, they imagined (perhaps still do), that “together” was a place called Palestine — the land of their heritage, or some idea of a Palestine restored to peace, to which they might all one day return. But that seems so very far away, so unreachable.

So, “together” is now a place called Canada. Even Canada seemed very far away, more than the thousands of kilometres that separate it from Syria and Kuwait. It seemed years away. But last fall Canada got much closer, much faster. There was a photograph of a beach; there was an election. And then, incredibly, Canada was under their feet, the staggering mass of it, sliding into place beneath them.

Suddenly, if three years can ever feel sudden, Yousef and Safya (patriarch and matriarch of the Elnabrees family) were at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, getting off a plane from Frankfurt, Germany, after an earlier flight from Lebanon. It was early February. They were not alone on the plane. Seventeen members of their family — their children, their children’s partners and grandchildren — were with them. Most of them had fled Syria, the most recent waypoint in a saga of statelessness that dated back almost half a century.

The Elnabreeses were met at the airport by, among many others, Ramzi Elnabrees, Yousef and Safya’s son. Ramzi has been in Canada since 2012, sponsored by his wife, Afaf Elnaggar, who came to Canada in 2000. Ramzi had a younger brother on the plane, Basel, whom he had not seen in 25 years. It had been almost as long since he had seen his other siblings and his parents.

They had so much to show each other, foremost their children. Ramzi and Afaf’s daughter, Yasmine, is three years old, born in Canada. Basel has three young children; his wife, Layan, has another on the way.

The scene was, as one might imagine, extremely emotional. “We waited at the airport with a long sign welcoming them to Canada and toques for them,” Dianne Segsworth recalls. She’s a member of the United Church refugee sponsorship team based in the side-by-side Ontario cities of Hamilton and Burlington that helped get them over.

“[Passersby] were asking about the signs. Then the family came out.” Tears flowed as the family members greeted one another, reunited at long last.

“Then,” says Segsworth, “Yousef, the patriarch, greeted us (the sponsorship people) all individually. He opened his arms and said, ‘You are family.’”

“People were watching,” she says. “One young woman, with tears in her eyes, came up and said, ‘I don’t even know you!’”

Yousef’s greeting was no idle platitude. It was deeply heartfelt. Though the Elnabreeses had never met their sponsors, a bond had already formed. The sponsorship had been years in the making, involving seven United Church communities in the Hamilton-Burlington area: Westdale, in the heart of west Hamilton, and the smaller outlying congregations of Kilbride, Lowville, Nelson, Lynden, Carlisle and Rock Chapel.

The effort began three years ago in 2013. Upon learning that The United Church of Canada was participating in a federal refugee sponsorship program, Afaf contacted the denomination’s refugee adviser, who contacted Westdale United.

“The Hamilton family (Afaf, Ramzi and their supporters) was asking for 46 family members scattered throughout the Middle East, all Palestinians, stateless and with no travel documents, living a nomadic life,” explains Westdale’s minister, Rev. Andy Crowell. The 46 were comprised of Afaf’s family, chiefly in Kuwait, and Ramzi’s, mostly in Syria, having arrived there as refugees from other places before civil hell broke loose in 2011.

There was no way Westdale United could handle 46.

“I had to choose between my family and my husband’s,” says Afaf. A hard choice but a compelling one, as Ramzi’s family members in Syria were in immediate danger.

Even to bring over 19, though, was a monumental ambition, especially for smaller churches with aging congregations, like Lowville-Nelson, located on outskirts
of Burlington.

“When we sat down with the mission outreach group, we balked at first,” says Lowville member Bev Balch. “But Lowville was blessed with a $50,000 bequest from (the late) Harvey Millar specifically for mission outreach. We were pretty certain the church council would support the $50,000 [going to the Elnabrees sponsorship effort]. We took a gulp, because we need a new roof on the church.” The council approved.

The $50,000 bequest wouldn’t cover even half the cost of bringing over 19 people. (Actually, it was initially 18, but in the interim Basel and Layan in Syria had had another child). The seven churches feverishly began fundraising. They got that $50,000 up to $130,000.

This all began, of course, long before the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey awakened the world to a horrific crisis. In fact, the original impetus behind the Elnabrees sponsorship had to do as much with them being Palestinian as the danger they faced in Syria. The commitment grew largely out of a two-week observation tour that Crowell and three other area United Church ministers — Christina Paradela of Lynden/Rock Chapel, Rev. Diane Blanchard of Carlisle/Kilbride and Rev. Barbara Morrison of Lowville/Nelson — made to the Middle East in 2013, with a special focus on the plight of Palestinians. Both Afaf’s and Ramzi’s families fled Palestine after the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. Though they identify as Palestinian, most of the 19 who arrived in Canada in February have never been to Palestine. They were born refugees, in other countries.

However, as the situation worsened in Syria, the chief concern became safety and getting the family out.

Basel Elnabrees and his family, his older brother Hosam and his family and their younger brother Magdy, lived in a government-held territory in a suburb of Damascus, but still the daily stress was enormous. “Every morning when I go out to work, I’m not sure if the family will be safe or I will come home safe,” says Basel. He is speaking to me in the Hamilton townhouse where he lives with Layan and their children Maria, Khattab and Sara. He talks to me partly in what English he has (he’s learning quickly) but also in Arabic, translated by Afaf.

“There was a bomb,” Layan tells me, “in a neighbourhood not far away. We were kept in the house for 10 hours; only after that people could come out.” Life was crushingly hard. Electricity was sometimes available only a couple of hours a day and hot water for showers was scarce. Basel worked in a ceramic tile factory, basically under the table because as a refugee he could not get permission for permanent residence or permanent work.

Both he and Layan have degrees in physics from the University of Baghdad. They lived in Iraq through the 1990s; they left because of the second Iraq war. Basel taught physics and math in Yemen for two years before the family fled to Syria. They found conflict wherever they went. “Maybe I bring bad luck,” Basel jokes.

Mid-conversation, Basel’s brother Hosam and his wife, Roula, come in, and their arrival leads to the story of Hosam and his younger brother Magdy’s arrest in Syria just last year. They were picked up and held presumably because their documents had expired. But amid the chaos of the civil war, there was no way to renew them.

“We didn’t know how long we would be under arrest,” says Hosam, through Afaf. “Some we talked to were there for eight months, a year.” Meanwhile their families were horrified. “The children were crying, ‘Where is my dad?’” says Roula. Hosam and Roula have three kids — Dina, 9, Jamal, 7, and Zaineldeen, 4. “I would say, ‘He’s at work.’ We didn’t want them to understand [that their father had been arrested]. We feared we would lose him.” After 23 days, Hosam and Magdy were released, to everyone’s enormous relief.

As we talk, the preschoolers play in the beautiful way children play, all careless limbs and laughter, more beautiful for the way in which the misery their families have been through passes unremembered — a kind of triumph over the past.  

After being displaced for so long, imprisoned, living in the shadows of terror and war, never knowing where they were headed, how does it feel to have arrived here?

“I can’t answer in one word,” says Basel. “I feel safe. Living is stable.”

“I am so happy,” says Afaf, beaming, her child still playing with her cousins. “We didn’t see Basel for 25 years. I feel like a Canadian now, not an immigrant.”

Layan, who would like one day to get her master’s degree in physics at Hamilton’s McMaster University, says the children are particularly thrilled with Hamilton Harbour and the seemingly endless expanse of Lake Ontario beyond it. They were far from water in Syria. “And playgrounds,” adds Basel, “They have never seen this before. Playgrounds, with swings. A place like this just for children.”

There is a kind of glow in the room: what were thousands of miles of separation are now mere inches. Arm can reach arm and the challenges of living, not just surviving, can be met together, with reasonable odds. So much has gone into making these moments happen. Exhaustion doesn’t weaken the joy, it enriches it. 

— By Jeff Mahoney

One family settled, another delayed

It wasn’t that long ago that Rev. Andrew Richardson of Trinity United in Summerside, P.E.I., doubted whether any Syrians would find refuge in the small Maritime city.

In mid-2015, as the civil war in Syria continued to escalate, Richardson started to gauge interest in Summerside to sponsor a refugee family. “I tried to get some support from the community but there was very little interest,” he says.

But that all changed just a few months later when an image of a
little boy, dead, face down on a Turkish beach went viral. Alan Kurdi and his family had been trying to get away from the warzone to join relatives in Canada.

“By the time I got back to work in September, after being away, I had probably a dozen calls asking me, ‘What are you going to do about that?’” he remembers.

An organizing committee was quickly formed. Within a month, they raised close to $30,000 and doubled that within a few more weeks. A plea from the committee for household furniture and personal items was also heeded. The decision was made to sponsor two families, and a third is being considered.

The six-member Risha family, arrived Feb. 12 and they has been busy integrating into their new lives as Canadians. However, as of early April the arrival of a second family had been significantly delayed due to the ending of various government programs that expedited the arrival of Syrian refugees. The group now expects it could be late 2016 or early 2017 before their second family arrives.

Still, community response has been “amazing, actually,” says Richardson. “And at the same time, somewhat bittersweet. . . . It took that iconic image of that boy washing up on the shore, then everybody wanted to be part of it.”

— Colin MacLean 

The Khalaf family in February, enjoying their first outing to a Tim Hortons, accompanied by Tom and Sandy LaPointe of Edmonton. Photo by David Evans

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.”

—Mike Milne

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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