Saturday, January 16, 2016

What do we bring to the potluck?

The main guest of honour was refreshingly honest: "I'd like to apologize that I don't know everyone's names." She might have been surprised to hear this, but I didn't know everyone's names either, and I launched the group and co-organized the event.  Our group had somehow rippled outwards from being a few close friends and neighbors to being something larger, involving community leaders, local heroes and strangers willing to show up on a dark January night to bring a dish to our welcome potluck, held in the party room of the family's apartment building.

Among those welcoming our family to Canada were sponsorship group members and their friends who had donated goods and money, moved furniture, and accompanied our family to their school registrations, ESL assessments and doctor's appointments, plus our settlement outreach worker (Banah Alsafadi), volunteer translators, government representatives, our building manager (Lucy), the building caretakers and their kids, three gentlemen from the senior management of Firm Capital, which owns the apartment complex, and the imam of our local mosque (Hamdy Shafik).

Dawn Gordaneer and Elizabeth Jackson of MP Arif Virani's office, with the mother of our family. (Photo credit: Dominic Chan)
Member of Parliament Arif Virani was away in Ottawa, but sent his staffers Dawn Gordaneer and Elizabeth Jackson, who presented all six members of our family with Canada pins as a gesture of welcome from the government. Arif, who came to Canada as a child refugee from Uganda, is now Canada's Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and both Dawn and Elizabeth work closely with him on refugee and newcomer issues.

Ari Kalifon, the Senior Property Manager for Firm Capital, spoke about the concept of "Pride of Residency" and finding a place to call home, and then shared a story from his parents' lives as newcomers in Montreal many years ago.  The story involved a near-death experience in a blizzard on a mountain highway, and a rescue by a passing truck driver, and ended with a sunrise on a clear winter day, seen from the safety of a motel. The lesson, as Ari remembered his father telling it, was this: "There are many times and days that are difficult and dark, treacherous and dangerous, but there will always be a brighter tomorrow." Turning to face our family, he added, "Your new day has come."
Syrian-Canadian settlement outreach worker Banah Alsafadi translates Ari Kalifon's snowstorm story. (Photo credit: Dominic Chan)
The mother of our family addressed the guests briefly, with warm words of thanks, and in particular, appreciation for the feeling that she felt like family among us already.

She communicated in another way, too.  I don't know whether potlucks are a thing in Syria, but she has already nailed the subtle competitive art of what kind of dish to bring.
Photo credit: Dominic Chan

Her Syrian Chicken with Cashews and Rice immediately dominated the savory table: beautifully presented, unique, delicious.

There was some serious competition: group member Rachel Barney brought a gorgeous cake from a recipe by international culinary genius Ottonlenghi.  Our family brought pão de queijo (my husband Sergio Tenenbaum is Brazilian-Canadian), as well as the ethnic food of my people, Nanaimo Bars (I was born near Vancouver).

Full culinary flare points to Haosheng Li, a visiting graduate student from Nanjing University in China, who brought the ingredients to make beef-and-ginger dumplings, and cooked them during the party in the open kitchen.  He taught my sons how to fashion the dumplings, although his looked like tiny Frank Gehry sculptures and theirs looked like blobs.
My sons Alex and Leo Tenenbaum with Li Haosheng, learning to make dumplings.

Haosheng had been to the building before, in mid-December, to help carry some surprisingly heavy rugs donated by my colleague Diana Raffman -- just one of many, many tasks involved in setting someone up in a new place.

The war in Syria has left millions homeless and without the protection of a state or a place in civil society.  The responsibility to protect the human rights of these people falls on the shoulders of the international community at large. Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees program enables individual citizens and permanent residents to step up and shoulder their part of this responsibility quite directly. On paper, this responsibility is carefully circumscribed: there is a short list of things that sponsors must do. Specific dollar commitment levels are given, and particular tasks including finding dental and medical care, schools, and ESL training for adults, where needed. Rugs are not mentioned, and come to think of it, the people responsible for donating and transporting the rugs were not in our original list of sponsorship group members.

But having accepted the job of ensuring our Syrian family could have a place in some civil society, we've been heartened by the number of people who have stepped up out of our community to share the larger job of making this place a comfortable one. We owe special thank you to people like Haosheng, and to the owner of Toronto Coffee and Tea House who insisted on paying for all that hot chocolate on the day we found ourselves waiting there for an hour when the manager of the ESL centre next door was stuck in traffic and late for our teen girls' assessment.  We don't know your names, but we know something about your values.

Confident of sharing these values with many others, Room for More is stepping up to sponsor two more families: a mom and dad with children ages 7, 5, and 3, and another mom and dad with a 7-month-old baby.

We'll keep you posted on the progress of this sponsorship -- right now we are at the unexciting paperwork stages -- and we'll hope that you'll be able to contribute in some way, either to this cause directly, or to the broader cause of supporting the rights and protection of those caught in the cross-fire around the world.

From left: building caretaker Anthony, Firm Capital COO Roy Budgell, Senior Property Manager Ari Kalifon, our family's nine-year-old, me (Jennifer Nagel), Firm Capital's Director of Residential Real Estate Dmytro Leshchyshen, building manager Lucy, a nice man whose name I can't remember (but I think he's Anthony's brother), Dawn Gordaneer of Arif Virani's office, the mother of our family. (Photo credit: Dominic Chan)


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