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.