Welcoming Our Syrian Family Home

Kurdish refugees arrive in Yumurtalik, Turkey, fleeing the advances of Islamic State extremists on the north Syrian city of Kobani, on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (Roy Gutman/MCT)

Kurdish refugees arrive in Yumurtalik, Turkey, fleeing the advances of Islamic State extremists on the north Syrian city of Kobani, on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (Roy Gutman/MCT)

By Nick Ramsubick

You awake to the sound of birds chirping, street dogs barking, and the warm comforting feeling of the sun’s heat on your face–the perfect combination to start the day. Maybe you’ll go over to your best friend’s house, help Ummah cook breakfast, or maybe just go for a walk to take advantage of the beautiful weather. Suddenly, crying intrudes into your perfect scene, the unsettlingly close sound of gun shots moves in, and the smell of human waste brings you back to the harsh reality of your life. The pieces of straw beneath you scratch your sides as you turn over to look at your baby brother who is wrapped in a garbage bag instead of a blanket. Your Ambee and Ummah are still not back, and you start wondering if you will get breakfast today. The harsh reality of your life should not be a reality at all.

Thankfully this is not the reality of our life, but unfortunately this is a reality for many refugees in refugee camps around the Middle East. It is difficult to place ourselves into the nightmarish anecdote posed above; furthermore, it would be patronizing to presume to understand the difficulty of a refugee’s life and then carry on with our day. To Canadians, the life of a Syrian refugee seems very abstract, and though it is may seem easy to empathize with the situation refugees are facing, it is hard for Canadians to feel like they can do anything about it, unless you’re a part of the RSGC family.

RSGC's team of supporters of our Syrian family

This year, April marked not only the beginning of spring and the month the grade 11’s travelled to B.C; it was also the month in which RSGC students and faculty came together to accomplish an important goal, welcoming our Syrian refugee family. By the end of April, our school was able to raise $20,000 and collect bags upon bags of living essentials for our family, but the collective effort started much earlier than April.

Ms. Totten, Ms. Ryan and Mr. Beatty had been working together tirelessly since October to get our school to where we are now, with a Syrian family living safely in Toronto. The campaign to sponsor a family began when Ms. Totten brought the idea to Mr. Beatty, and soon after Ms. Ryan joined the team, because her parish was in the process of sponsoring their own family. Ms. Ryan became an invaluable member of the committee as she was no stranger to the amount of work and the challenges that the school might face when sponsoring a family: “As a school we can do a lot, but when sponsoring a family, it’s not just an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. job,” she said.

Though the school was fully committed to helping a Syrian family, there were some concerns that came up when discussing the possibility of sponsoring a family. “Our responsibility to the family does not end when school ends. We thought about who was going to be there when they call or during the summer,” explained Ms. Ryan.

Before the family arrived, potential members from the school who decided to look after the family would have to “work through lots of paper work and take certain courses” to prepare to be caretakers of the family, Ms. Ryan added. There was also the issue of overcoming the language barrier, finding a comfortable living arrangement, and providing childcare, all while helping the family become contributing members of society. As a committee, they agreed that before they sponsored a family they wanted to make sure that the family they sponsored would be looked after completely and not feel neglected once settled in Toronto. When all the concerns were addressed, the committee decided that it would be best if our school helped Reverend Jesse Parker’s church sponsor a family instead of sponsoring a family on our own. Ms. Ryan and the committee were ecstatic about the partnership, because now there would be a dedicated community for one family. “I was extremely proud that so many people stepped up to help sponsor the family,” Ms. Ryan added through a beaming smile.

The Western world may have started paying attention to the Syrian refugee crisis when the shocking photo of a drowned Syrian boy faced-down on a Turkish beach started making headlines, but some people like Caroline Keenan have been working to help provide aid for the crisis since its beginning. Ms. Keenan is a technical advisor for Save the Children who came to speak to our school during the month of April to educate us on how far Canada has come in aiding refugees displaced by the crisis and what work still needs to be done.

During this past year she was part of a group that sponsored a Syrian family as well, but when faced with the responsibility of helping a Syrian family, they found themselves in a unique position. “We didn’t actually have any concerns and, in fact, we were looking to sponsor a second family or support some of the Government Assisted Refugees,” she said. For Keenan’s group, the process of sponsoring a family was similar to the process our school went through as she describes it as being “very administrative.” Once the processing of paper work was done and the limbo period of waiting over the real responsibility arrived, Keenan’s group welcomed the responsibility with open arms.

Since the arrival of the family, Keenan and her group members have been putting on many social gatherings to help the family integrate. “We have organized dinners at the family’s house, dinners at group members’ houses, cooking together, and one day we took them to a studio to take family portraits,” Keenan said. One of the group’s major responsibilities is to help the family feel at home in Toronto, and though Keenan says the family is adjusting well, she adds that “they are still in a honeymoon period.” After being in Toronto for about two months, they are just focused on learning English.

Keenan’s efforts don’t end at sponsoring a family; she has also been a part of a group that is starting a new initiative to help support the newcomer community’s integration while also informing Torontonians about Syrian culture. Keenan helped bridge a partnership between the restaurant The Depanneur and the Arab Community Centre with the goal of providing newcomers with an opportunity to prepare and share local food and possibly generate income. Caroline Keenan is an example of an individual who has stepped up to help displaced people, but many charitable agencies in Canada have lead the effort in supporting Syrian newcomers. Agencies like The Welcome Project have allowed Canadians to volunteer their time to the effort, and Keenan says that Canadians have been eager to help in any way. “A lot of agencies are overwhelmed with volunteers at the moment,” said Keenan.

Since Canada’s commitment to accept 25,000 refuges was announced, exactly 27,005 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. Many Canadians have begun to appreciate the harsh reality of refugee life and opened their hearts, and communities have been more than welcoming to resettled refugees. The most important thing we as Canadians can do is to educate ourselves and our families about the crisis in Syria and the surrounding region and the realities of the people fleeing. Raising $20,00 to sponsor a family wouldn’t hurt either.

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