Saturday, September 22, 2018

Where are we now?

It's been forever since I posted, sorry!  We have been busy: lots of life events, challenges, setbacks and successes for our sponsored families here in Toronto, and the arrival of a new family in August, 2018. Sometimes sponsorship is exhausting, frankly, although mostly I think we've all gained something from it.  I've gained a much larger view of what is going on in the Greater Toronto Area, in a variety of dimensions: what settlement services are like, what is similar and different about family bonds and celebrations across cultures.  Such as: the culture in Scarborough.

By Toronto_map.png: Lencerderivative work: SimonP (talk) - Toronto_map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Our two first sponsored families made the choice to move to the suburbs, in large measure to be closer to a job held by the dad in the second family.  I'm not a suburban person, to put it mildly, but I've been discovering some excellent new things there (like the Damas Grill House and Juice Bar at Victoria Park and Lawrence, which has no website of its own, but here's a larger review of Syrian and Lebanese food in the area, guided by the heroes who founded Crown Pastries).

In any event, in consultation with the family, we made the decision to settle the third family close to their relatives (which means across town from most of the sponsorship group members).  What I hate: driving on the DVP to go see them to help them with something. What I love: seeing them close to each other and helping each other out.

Baby news: The second family we sponsored had a baby girl in September, and she is adorable.  Our newest family has two super cute little boys: a one-year-old and a three-year-old.

The boys' room in their new place, just before they arrived...
Job news: Both our original families have breadwinners working full time, and our newest family has someone who is doing a specialized Construction Trades ESL program that we expect to lead to a job soon (he has terrific talents and enthusiasm, and is learning the language quickly).

The sponsorship group itself has been through various ups and downs. Some people who helped a lot at the beginning are nowhere to be seen, and others have really come through in amazing ways. I spend crazy amounts of time stewing at people who promised to do something and then flaked out (this is way, way worse in my books than never showing up at all).  Or feeling mad at the people who keep saying, "I can't do that, I'm busy."  We are all busy, you fool.

My advice for anyone starting a sponsorship group: get everyone to sign a form saying that they will take care of something (and specifying exactly what that something is: housing, dental, ESL, school registrations, doctor sign-up), and to write out the following sentence in their own blood: "I understand that at some point I may be unable to execute this duty, and if or when this happens, I will find someone else to cover for me. I promise not to just write to the group organizer and tell her to find someone else." OK, it felt good to get that off my chest. All that said, I've largely been really reassured about human nature through this process: most people really do want to help.  Not just group participants and volunteers, also school secretaries, building superintendents, bus drivers, random community members.  Thanks, everyone.

People talk a lot about what an amazing multicultural scene we have in Toronto. One thing I appreciate much more clearly now than I ever did before: this doesn't happen by itself. It requires huge labour and sacrifices on the part of newcomers who are arriving and trying to learn how to fit in, and how to make their lives work here, encountering new social rules and expectations. It also requires a lot of work on the part of settled Canadians to bring newcomers into our fold in a way that will enable them to live here freely and well.

Fellow Canadians who are up for the work can find out more about how to get involved through the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program.  Right now there are opportunities for Canadians to form a private sponsorship group that will get financial support, too, if you have more time than money to share. We've got another 11 months to finish the one-year responsibility period for our third family, and I don't know if we'll take on any other sponsorships after this one, but I know we'll all have been changed and strengthened by this experience.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

New Canadians

On the evening of February 21, 2017, Room for More was glad to drive out to Pearson International and welcome a family of five - mom and dad, plus three kids (9 and 5-year-old boys, and an 8-year-old girl).  They are from Damascus but have been in refugee shanty housing on the outskirts of Beirut for the last four years.
Waiting at the gate (for 1.5 hours after landing)

It had been a busy week for the group. We found an apartment near their extended family in Toronto, and furnished it almost entirely with donations from group members, friends and supporters. We had one beautiful but frustrating sofa that would not fit through the door but everything else went smoothly. Group members bought fresh bedding and towels, and someone brought a small army of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the kids' room.
Ninja Turtles ready to go on bedside table

They arrived late Tuesday night, and the children were registered for school on Wednesday and started on Thursday. The 5-year-old had a tough time his first day (he had never been to school before) but the big kids did great, and talked their little brother into going back in better spirits on Friday.  By the following weekend he was doing well enough to get an invitation to a birthday party where he apparently held his own in a dance-off (wish we had the video of that).

We have one more family waiting to cross the ocean to us, and we check on the Canadian Immigration website several times every week to see how they are doing. Still "in process" -- but we hope they will be cleared through soon.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Coming soon ...

Room for More just got the great news that our second sponsored family of Syrian newcomers will be arriving in Canada in three weeks! We understand they are very excited to be coming to Toronto, especially the kids, who have been out of school for a while now, but will be going into grades 4, 3, and junior kindergarten. We're all ready with the furniture, and trying to get the paperwork done on an apartment before they arrive, so we can get it set up for them. I think I have coats for everyone, somewhere, although I'm just guessing about the sizes... .

Saturday, December 31, 2016

From one sister to another

Room for More is grateful to all donors who have come forward in the last month to help bring our extended Syrian family to Toronto.  Special thanks to Maxine, who works part-time at Fresh Collective on Roncesvalles, in a job training program for adults with special needs.
Maxine (left), with Fresh Collective Founder/CEO Laura-Jean
The story behind the photo: "Maxine decided to celebrate her 30th birthday by sharing her good fortunes with a Syrian refugee family trying to join their relatives here in Toronto. Maxine loves her two brothers so much and would be devastated were they to be forced to live elsewhere. At Maxine's workplace, the Fresh Collective on Roncesvalles, she heard of the Room for More organization looking for financial help. Maxine donated all of her birthday present money and asked for donations in her name be made to Room for More. Maxine hopes that her gift will make a move to Toronto that much more real for these families. Maxine continues to contribute to her community here in High Park / Roncesvalles in ways that help celebrate people of all backgrounds and abilities." 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Syrian-Canadian party time

It's getting dark and cold in Canada, but Room for More warmed things up at the start of December with a party to celebrate Syrian food and music, and to raise funds for our new families, arriving soon. Dozens of friends, friends-of-friends, and total strangers crowded the house where Room for More began.

Our party featured crazy amounts of Syrian food prepared by our sponsored family, with help from sponsor group members.  Cooking together, we learned new recipes and discovered new spices and presentation ideas (nuts on everything! an army of romaine spears guarding the tabbouleh!).

Newcomer musicians Esmeel Aboufakher and Rahaf Alakbani (profiled here) gave us traditional Syrian music. Their first song told the story of a man far from home who has a conversation with a priest from the Old Country about missing that place.  It was beautiful, and heartbreaking, and I recorded the whole thing on my phone, but something's wrong with my phone (I discovered) and so we just have this 30-second clip:
Our musicians already knew our sponsored family because the youngest child in the family is a member of the children's choir they have organized, a choir which went up to Ottawa just after our party to sing at the House of Commons and meet Justin Trudeau.  These kids are going places.

From a fundraising perspective, the event did well, getting us most of the way towards being able to support the two new families coming in (soon, we hope).  We also have a few new group members who can share the tasks of helping out the new families.

From a cultural perspective, it was great to hear and taste what Syrian newcomers are bringing to the country.  We learned new things this year.  For the party, I made baklava for the first time, following Maureen Abood's radical path of not putting butter between every single layer of phyllo dough (that's 4 hours saved, right there).  Came out looking good, if I do say so myself.
The Syrian pronounciation is "baklawa"

The Syrian food thing has been a positive development in my house, where I had fallen into a rut involving a very limited run of pasta and taco meals. I bought this cookbook, written by a Canadian woman and her son, originally from Aleppo but now living in Montreal.  Some amazing flavour combinations there, unlike any other Middle Eastern cuisine I have tasted.

We hope to have another party a year from now, to celebrate with the new families coming in, and our first sponsored family, well-established in Canada.  Until then, stay warm!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Celebrating what we have here

As November creeps on, the days are getting darker.  News feeds are crowded with stories of the continuing disaster in Syria and storm clouds closer to home, and it's hard to see how to respond.  I've been walking around Toronto thinking about how lucky we are to live here, and how much the vibrancy of our city depends on the newcomers who have come from all over the world to live here, with newcomers now making up half the city's population. Half of our sponsorship group, too: Room for More includes members who have come to Canada from Poland, Lebanon, Brazil, Pakistan and the United States, alongside Canadians from Toronto, the East and West Coasts, and Saskatchewan. Private sponsorship has the benefit of bringing us into close contact with each other, and with "our" new family from Syria.  It has also had the benefit of bringing us into contact with Syrian food, which is, quite frankly, amazing.
Syrian brunch prepared by Newcomer Kitchen (where the mom in our family works part-time)

The hospitality at our new family's place is always warm, and involves a crazy number of dishes.  We are also getting to know something of the music (I don't know about the other group members, but it's been a new world for me listening to whatever the teens have on their phones when I am driving them somewhere).

The Oud - a Syrian lute

The news media has focused quite a bit on what our newcomers are getting in Canada, but our group wanted to take one night to celebrate what they are giving. On Saturday, December 3, Room for More is hosting an Evening of Syrian Food and Music at a group member's home. We'll be cooking with members of our sponsored family, and we'll have traditional live Syrian music, played on the bozok, which is an oud-like instrument so obscure I can't find a picture of it (or maybe I'm transliterating wrong?).  Anyway, our musican is Esmaeel Abou Fakher, and he is without question the most amazing bozok player we've ever heard... .

The evening is also a fundraiser for the new families who are coming in: a couple with three young children, now 9, 7 and 4, and a couple with an 18-month old toddler. They will arrive by January or February of 2017, we are told, and if you'd like to help us support them, our donations link is here. Also, if you'd like to come out to the party, email us at and let us know -- we'd love to celebrate with you, as long as there is room for more (but the house only fits so many, so let us know earlier rather than later if you are eager to come out).  Whatever happens we'll post some pictures of the food and videos of the music.  And as winter comes, try to keep warm.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How is it going? (Them and Us)

Everyone keeps asking how our family is doing, and the quick answer is: great. The kids are all settled in school, their mother is attending English as a Second Language courses, and she has also done some training to work as a peer counselor for women who have experienced trauma (she's a natural -- I hope I don't experience trauma before she gets further in the ESL because I will want her to be my trauma counselor, when that need arises). Meanwhile the youngest child in particular has distinguished himself as a talented drummer and rapper, performing audacious solos at his school concert and on stage at the West Neighbourhood House annual Refugee Rights Day party.  He has absolutely zero stage fright (and got a standing ovation).

The longer answer to the question of how they are doing involves some bittersweet notes, missing home and friends, struggling to find the right words in a new language, getting through the Canadian winter, getting on the wrong bus (once), and enduring an awful lot of vaccinations and dental visits.  But our family -- a widowed Syrian mom and five kids, who arrived in Toronto at the end of December 2015 -- are resilient and optimistic, and they have a bunch of friends in the city now, including another Syrian family in the next building, and also including us.

How are we doing, in the sponsorship group?  Many of us started this by focusing on how things would change for our sponsored family, but we've been noticing unexpected changes in ourselves as well. Sponsoring has been a chance to get to know each other, and another side of the city, visiting apartment blocks and halal grocery stores we hadn't noticed before, really talking to that guy at the falafel place who turns out to be sponsoring his brother, connecting to strangers who want to help, and especially members of Toronto's Arabic-speaking community, who have come to the rescue on countless occasions when we needed someone to translate or solve a problem.  Civic issues like housing, summer youth programs and low-cost dentistry are suddenly much more vivid for us. We've also really enjoyed the family's hospitality -- stopping by means staying for an hour for tea (compulsory tea!), or more -- and it's reminded us of the value of slowing down and spending more time face to face with family and friends.

Reflecting on our status as a sponsorship group, I recently asked Room for More group members what brought them in, and I'm compelled to share their replies here:

Katherine O'Neil: 
1. We’re always telling our kids that to whom much is given, much is expected.  If we’re in a position to help others, quite simply it’s the right thing to do.
 2. Helping others transcends religion, culture, and nationality.  It’s about being human and realizing that if we don’t step up and help our global community, what sort of community are we creating?
 3. We are so much more alike than we are different.  This is something we’ve experienced with our sponsored family.  They just want a safe place to call home and a chance at a future without war.  Don’t we all?

Laura-Jean Bernhardson:
In September 2015, I was horrified by the images of the Syrian refugee crisis in the media like so many people, and when my cousin Jennifer posted on Facebook that there is something people can do, I decided I had to join in.  I went to a meeting in her living room with several other people, the first of several meetings, and we took the first steps to form a sponsorship group.  Just a few months later, our sponsored family arrived. 
     Being part of this group and this process has been rewarding in countless ways. This crisis is history in the making, and I'm proud to be able to contribute to making people's lives better.  Being involved helps me remember what's really important, how lucky I am to be born Canadian and how abundant our country is.  It's also a true privilege to be working alongside other good hearted and generous people.  If you want to make your own life better, lend a hand to someone else.  It works instantly! 

Claire Westgate:
When the local media started to report heavily on what was happening with refugees, something clicked – I literally sobbed at my kitchen table for an hour, I can’t remember what the article was that prompted it, but whatever it was, a switch flipped for me.  It’s not that I didn’t realize these things were happening in the world, but until that moment, it hadn’t sunk in that I could, and should, play some sort of role in helping to right the disastrous course that things are taking.  Quite simply, people need to be better to each other, and Room for More represents all that people can, and should, do for each other, most especially in times of dire need.   So – I emailed you!  And here we are.

And.. a group member who asked to remain anonymous:

My life is very comfortable. I live alone in a two bedroom apartment in a city where I feel safe going out by myself at any time of day or night. I don't have to worry from day to day or month to month about food or shelter or security. I have (and am able to add to) savings for emergencies, large expenses, and future retirement. I have to ask myself how many luxuries I can possibly be entitled to when I could instead help someone who does not have the comfort and security that I can take more or less for granted.
   I had read the autobiography of Ida Cook, who wrote romance novels for Mills and Boon under the name Mary Burchell, and who became involved in helping Jews get out of Europe in the late 1930s. At the most dramatic end of the spectrum, she helped smuggle valuables into Britain so that when refugees were able to leave Europe they had some of their own resources with them. At the more prosaic end she collected small donations from Britons who could contribute funds with guarantors who would agree to support refugees using those funds once they arrived from Europe. When the Syrian refugee crisis was in the news in August and September 2015, I knew that I could not sponsor an entire family on my own, but I wanted to contribute in some way -- and that was when I saw your post on Facebook proposing a sponsorship group.


We will be channeling the spirit of Ida Cook in the months to come as we look for support for the two new families we are bringing over: a couple with children ages 8, 6, and 4, and another couple with an 11-month-old baby.  If all goes well they should arrive in July or August. 

It remains an open question how far Canada will go in keeping places open for refugees seeking resettlement, but it is clear that strong private sponsorship support makes it politically much easier for the government to hold the door open (both to Syrians and to others from war zones around the world).  The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has praised Canada and argued that our Private Sponsorship of Refugeees program should serve as a model for other countries in the world. Canadians seeking to sponsor refugees can start a group and anyone at all is welcome to help us with donations, large or small.  If you ever need a drummer, rapper, trauma counselor or very leisurely cup of tea, we've got you covered.