Sunday, January 3, 2016

Arriving and settling

In theory, sponsors get 10 days' advance notification of the arrival of their refugee families.  In practice, it's been a bit chaotic lately.  We found out about our family's arrival less than 48 hours before their plane touched down, and, crucially, just a few hours before No Frills supermarket closed its doors for the two-day city-wide Christmas-Boxing Day holiday. We had already stocked the family's apartment with rice, lentils and other dry goods, but their fridge was empty. Have you been to No Frills late afternoon on Christmas Eve?  It felt weirdly festive, if a bit panicky, the way many things have felt lately.

With refugees arriving by the hundreds on chartered flights, the Canadian government is now using the special infield terminal at Pearson International to handle arrivals. Built to handle traffic during the construction of the new terminal, it is now used for state visits and the like, and no longer open to the general public, so we couldn't meet our family there. Meetings are handled at a number of different airport area hotels, with staff from local community service agencies managing the flow of luggage, sponsors and busloads of newcomers.

Most of our family arrived on the 26th -- the mother and her four minor children.  We discovered (from the mother) that the 21-year-old son was booked on a flight she expected to arrive on the 29th. Her own flight left Beirut in the early morning, connecting through Jordan to arrive in Toronto in the afternoon of the same day.  It turned out his flight was a red-eye, leaving later on the 29th, with a longer layover in Jordan, and set to arrive in Toronto at 3:45 am on the 30th. Somehow the longer layover turned into a much, much longer layover, and his flight touched down 10 hours later than scheduled. Hours of processing at the airport followed, as the Canadians are now ensuring that these refugees get their health cards and social insurance numbers before they even leave the terminal. We didn't find out until the last minute which airport hotel we would meet our 21-year-old at, but it was immediately clear we were in the right place.  Groups of newcomers stumbled through the lobby, many extremely exhausted couples with bubbly and apparently very well-rested children and toddlers awestruck by the holiday decorations. I suddenly remembered how well 3-year-olds can sleep on a long flight, and appreciated how very hard it must have been for any adult to sleep, nervous about the plunge into the unknown, into a cold country with a foreign language, and a sponsorship or government care program that must have been hard to understand.

"Make sure they understand what sponsorship is, and why you are doing it." All of the refugee training manuals say this, and the message was reinforced by our Newcomer Settlement Outreach worker, who also told us that sponsorship in the Middle East can mean something very different, either in Lebanon or in Saudi Arabia, something that can be revoked arbitrarily by the sponsor, something that can in some circumstances involve bribery and awkward compromises.  But what is sponsorship, and why are we doing it?  Despite having invested a certain amount in sponsorship activities in the last few months, the full answer to these questions is still something that I haven't worked out to my satisfaction -- material for another post.  Still, many partial answers spring to mind. The depth of the human tragedy in Syria is enormous. Protection of refugees is part of certain very fundamental principles concerning the relationship between individuals and states. Torontonians love multicultural Toronto enough to fight for it, not only for the great Cuban food, but also for the general spirit and strength it brings the city.  It's been fun meeting people involved in sponsorship, and being knocked over by their willingness to help, and the kindness of strangers. Our last-minute translator on the trip to pick up the 21-year-old was a total stranger, someone I found earlier that day by calling someone from our list of volunteers, discovering that she was overseas on a scholarship term, but that she had an Arabic-speaking friend in the neighborhood.  He was glad to help, and I was extra glad when he volunteered his large SUV in place of my battered Honda Civic. But I can't deny that a large part of my question about why we are doing this came at the moment when we got that 21-year-old guy home to the apartment, and his sisters came running to hug him.

Also, for just a moment, I was proud of the way the living room looked -- warm thanks again to everyone who donated and helped.
The binder on the coffee table has a welcome letter, maps, useful information, and a potentially confusing picture of John McCallum assembling their bunk bed.

They face many challenges, starting with the minus 12 C weather tomorrow on the youngest child's first day of school.  The three teenage girls have to write assessments of their abilities in English and Mathematics to secure a high school placement, and I expect it will be very hard work for them to master the material and the language, down to the new script.  They've been working hard in the past years, volunteering in their refugee camp in child care, and studying whatever they could study -- some kind of school program for the youngest, and training in first aid and child care for the older children.  But starting over with everything again is going to be hard, too.  Arrival in Canada is not a simple happy ending to a story of struggle, but a continuation of the struggle in changed circumstances, and we as sponsors are just finding out about how that struggle goes now.

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