How sponsoring a Syrian family gave me a first-hand look at the resilience of refugees

To mark Refugee Week, one Canadian shares her story of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family in Toronto: "There’s a misconception out there that supporting a refugee is solely an act of kindness... I would argue that it’s mutually beneficial." 

By: /
June 23, 2017
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Syrian refugees arrive at the Pearson Toronto International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Dalia, 7, bursts into singing her ABC’s whenever I arrive at her apartment. “How are you, Dalia?” I ask her in the midst of her rendition. “Good!” she responds confidently.

“How’s school?” I continue. 

“Good,” she repeats. But she’s done with conversation. She grabs my hand and pulls me into her small bedroom, saying: “Come! Come!”

Her two younger brothers follow us. Chaos ensues. We play catch and monkey-in-the-middle. Then she pulls me to the floor to play with her dolls. None of the kids can speak much more English, but it doesn’t really matter. Through giggles, wild hand gestures and some quirky facial expressions, we get by.

It’s different with her parents. When Ahmad and Sanaa arrived in Toronto just two months ago from Syria, they didn’t know a word of English. Through weekly publicly-funded language classes, they’re learning slowly, and showing tremendous progress. But it can still be hard to get a conversation going without reaching for the Google Translate app. Or resorting to miming. And quirky facial expressions.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared two years ago that Canada would take in 25,000 government-funded refugees, and encouraged private sponsors to bring in more, many Canadians were elated.

Individuals, community groups, libraries, medical facilities and schools across the country began preparing to resettle thousands of newcomers. Not since 1979, when 60,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam were settled in Canada within a two-year period, have we witnessed anything like the current mobilization of public and private resources in response to a global crisis. Research has shown that citizen-sponsored refugees tend to settle more quickly than other refugees, and that they make a positive impact on the economy.

So my family’s decision to sponsor a family from Syria — along with nine other families we knew — wasn’t a difficult one. Ahmad, Sanaa, Dalia, Taha and Nadir essentially became our responsibility. We found and furnished an apartment for them, close to other Syrian newcomers, that was within walking distance of a school, a grocery store, a park, a community centre and public transport. 

We taught them how to set up bank accounts and medical appointments, how to register their kids in schools and coordinate English classes. We heeded the advice from the resettlement coordinators at the Mennonite Central Committee, the relief agency we worked with to bring the family over: “You basically are responsible for taking care of them,” they told us. “You are their social safety net and their community for the first 12 months they’re in Canada.”

I’ll never forget the first time Sanaa walked home on her own after an English language class. I had accompanied her to the first two, but couldn’t make it in time to walk her to the third class. In our last garbled conversation, I had told her how to take a short-cut back to her apartment. But I couldn’t be certain she’d understood. I raced to her class after it ended, arriving a few minutes late. She wasn’t anywhere in sight. 

I was frantic. What if she was lost? She didn’t have a phone and couldn’t speak English. How would she find her way back? How would I ever reach her? I drove back uneasily to her apartment via the short-cut I’d instructed her to take. It was pouring rain and there was no sign of her.

Then, just as I was about give up all hope, I saw a petite woman in a headscarf and long brown coat turning the corner, clutching a blue umbrella. I don’t remember the last time I felt more relieved, overjoyed — and so damn proud. I pulled over and called to her through the window: “Sanaa! Come in!” She looked up in surprise and her expression mirrored mine. Pure, uninhibited jubilation. And relief. So, she had felt anxious too.

Sanaa and Ahmad are amazing in that even though they have gone through terrible horror back in their hometown of Idlib — Sanaa had to identify her father’s battered body after he was hit by an air strike from Bashar al-Assad's forces, and their home and village have been completely destroyed — they carry on without an ounce of defeatism.

They have been proactive in trying to find employment in their respective professions; Ahmad as an electrician and Sanaa as a seamstress. And they consistently express nothing but gratitude. At one point, when Ahmad and I were discussing how the conflict in Syria has become a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a battleground for competing terrorist factions, I asked: “But aren’t you angry?”

His response blew me away. 

He raised his hands and looked to the sky, saying, Alhumdulillah” (Thanks be to God). “Alhumdulillah” is a phrase typically used by Muslims to express gratitude.

I know they’re not alone among refugees in possessing a fierce sense of resilience. Another spirited Yazidi family from Iraq I met last week had nothing to say when I asked what challenges they’ve faced since arriving. It’s not that they haven’t. Language, loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder are often identified by resettlement workers as common problems refugees experience in their first year. They just didn't want to talk about it.

But when I asked how they had felt when learning they would be moving to Canada, their faces lit up and everyone had a story to share about the precise moment they found out. The two teenage sons excitedly shared their career ambitions: They wanted to become high-ranking police officers, so that they could give back to this country and protect people the way they deserved to be protected.

There’s a misconception out there that supporting a refugee — whether it’s through sponsorship or donating your time or money to a charity — is solely an act of kindness that goes a long way towards giving people a chance to start new in life. I would argue that it’s mutually beneficial. 

Not only has Ahmad’s family taught me the depth of human resilience in the face of deep trauma and difficulty, but I have no doubt that they are going to make this country a better place. 

This article was first published with The Independent