By PAUL BOREHAM
Weather-worn people are streaming like ants from their homes with all they can carry. Some are on foot, some ride bicycles and others are lucky enough to have a hired driver. Night is the safest. One way or another, they must flee to the border and escape a war that has taken over their once-normal Middle Eastern country.
A little Syrian boy with a red shirt is found on a sandy beach, face down, having washed ashore from a capsized boat. He lays there as gentle waves caress his lifeless body.
In March 2011, amidst the so-called Arab Spring, a graffiti-painted wall filled with anti-government slogans started a chain of events that, in 2016, includes military participation by the world’s top powers.
A civil war, started by pro-democracy demonstrations, has morphed into a conflict with many sides, including the Islamic State, who have taken up swaths of the Syrian Desert and are inflicting terror.
Cities have been bombed, chemical warfare has taken place and there are accounts of torture and war crimes. Infrastructure in many cities has been destroyed. So far about 250,000 people have been killed, at least one million are injured and many are missing. Amnesty International calls it “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”
Nearly half of Syria’s 21 million have left their homes. Seven million are displaced inside the country and four million have chosen to leave.
Neighbouring countries – Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt – have opened their doors to Syria’s fleeing refugees. Some stay with friends or family, some duke it out in refugee camps near the border and others do whatever they can to find shelter and procure food and water. Once out, some want to leave the area altogether and start life in a far-off land where there is no fear of war. Europe is a well-sought-after-destination.
A popular route for refugees is to flee north into Turkey and then take a dangerous boat ride across the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands.
In the past year, media reports started bearing witness to overloaded boats, full to the brim with Syrians desperate to find a safe place to live. Images of people fleeing, being denied at some border crossings; countries debating whether they will allow refugees, scenes of desert refugee camps, the voices of humanitarian organizations getting louder and the outlook more dire; the crisis was building.
And then images of boat disasters started appearing. At the end of August 2015, the picture of little Aylan Kurdi on the beach woke up the world, including Canadians. Kurdi’s family was hoping to come to Canada.
“It is a humanitarian crisis,” said Jim Estill, CEO at Danby Appliances in Guelph. “This prompted me to call a meeting of a few local church groups.”
He had a huge plan. He wanted to sponsor 50 Syrian families and bring them to Guelph. Estill was going to personally provide an estimated $1.5 million.
Sara Sayyed is an administrative volunteer at the Muslim Society of Guelph and wears many hats. “At the end of September we had gotten an email from Jim that he wanted to do this sponsorship and get something moving, because he felt like the government and the organizations were not moving fast enough,” said Sayyed.
(She added that since the Liberal government was elected on Oct. 11, the process has been sped up from years to weeks.)
“He reached out to us, at the Muslim Society in particular, because of language and similar culture. A lot of our congregants are Arabic speaking and from the Middle East and with the similarities we thought we could help him out with that.” There are about 4,000 Muslims living in Guelph, she said. It was a natural fit.
It was quite a steep learning curve from there. How do you sponsor a refugee family? – Not just one, but 50.
Financial matters, paperwork and legalities were worked out by the society and after two weeks they started reaching out to members. Ten families had relatives from Syria interested in coming to Guelph.
Estill received national media attention in late November when he made the plan public. Calls and emails came pouring in from people wanting to help and the list of volunteers started to grow.
It’s all about orchestration, Estill said. “Orchestration is what a good CEO does.”
His plan includes 10 teams of people working on different facets of the effort. Mentors assess newcomers needs and take them through necessary chores. There’s a finance team, an education/training team and a health team. A food and meals team makes sure everyone’s fed. A jobs team helps match people with suitable employment. There’s a corporate donations team. A transportation team gets people to and fro and a housing team secures all-important shelter, and that might include a temporary place in the beginning. Finally, there’s a volunteers team to oversee it all, which Sayyed is also director of. Every step of the way, someone will be there to help Syrian families get started.
“The goal is to successfully integrate refugees into our society, which includes allowing them the opportunity to be self-supporting contributors,” Estill wrote in his blog.
To prepare for the arrival of families, the society has partnered with the Salvation Army and Hope House to co-ordinate and store donations such as home furnishings, clothes, kitchen items and toys so that they’ll be ready for families when they get here, said Sayyed. Three warehouses are filling up with donations from near and far-flung places, such as Boston.
Two real estate agents are helping locate apartments throughout the city, speaking with landlords and producing a spreadsheet and map. “But it’s hard to ask for an apartment when you don’t know when they are arriving,” said Sayyed. It’s all part of the orchestration, requiring communication and foresight. Health and English as second language classes are also at the top of the list, with health professionals and immigration services at the ready for 300 to 400 new residents to the city.
There are different avenues for refugees coming to Canada. Some are government-sponsored and proceed to reception houses, such as on David Street in Kitchener. They can stay here a few days while they find an apartment of their own. Others are privately sponsored and are in the hands of groups such as the Muslim Society in Guelph. There is a blended version where government and the group share costs. Private groups go through organizations that are Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs), religious or otherwise. Some refugees arrive by their own means and receive assistance at organizations such as the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support in Kitchener. Only larger centres have reception houses.
Groups sponsoring refugees have a responsibility to care for their families for one year, including housing and any other support they may need. That one year is an important time for newcomers to learn English, find a job and learn the ways of their new home.
The project has brought Guelph together. A website has been started, called the Refugee Sponsorship Forum, by the First Baptist Church, and it’s the go-to place for information for groups, wanna-be volunteers, news and events. The goal is to co-ordinate all efforts in the city and work together.
The 50 families Estill is bringing to Guelph is just part of the effort. Twenty-six more groups are now onboard – groups of friends and church groups wanting to help a single family. Some pre-date Estill’s effort. St. George’s Anglican Church is one of these, and they have been waiting for their family to arrive for some time.
“We found our family through a friend in Lebanon,” said Linda Tripp, who has organized the church’s effort. “Many of the other groups will only find out who their families are when they get here,” she said. Since arriving in Lebanon, the family has had triplets and now the church is awaiting a family of five. They have their own donation rallies and teams, but they do corroborate and go to meetings with the other groups.
“We could get the call tomorrow,” she said. The hardest part is the waiting. “We just have to be ready.”
There have been many benefits to the events that have taken place the last few months, said Sayyed. “This has been something that has come into the media spotlight, and because of Syria, people are also finding out about other things that are happening in the world. Then you can make a point of doing stuff for other people that need help too, or realize that this is happening all the time. Hopefully this becomes a learning experience, and people who are volunteering now, they don’t stop volunteering.
“I’m learning about all these groups and organizations that are coming forward to help us that I didn’t even know were in this city, and now I know, and now I have contact with them, and I will keep building that contact and find out how I can help other people too.”
The families are expected to arrive anytime.
Meanwhile, the new Liberal government started working on their pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, but the deadline was extended into February.
As the new year dawned, a few Syrian families started arriving at the government reception house in Kitchener, across from Victoria Park. I walked in the door of the large old house to see if there was anyone I could speak with. Stepping inside, the place was buzzing with activity – dark-skinned people, all. They looked Syrian. A walk down the hallway revealed a woman off in a room, finding her bearings, clearly a newcomer and weary, wondering what might lie ahead.
I was asked to sit down in a room with a couch and wait for someone in authority. As I did, a small boy came and sat down beside me on a chair, smiling jubilantly and looking right at me, as if waiting for me to speak to him. He must have been eight or nine, just sprouting up, thin and wiry. An older companion, who spoke English, sat down beside him.
“How are you,” I said. He was obviously happy to be here. I was his guest. His friend told me his name – an exotic-sounding name – and yes he’d come from Syria. His parents were out looking for a place to live. They’d been at the reception house 10 days.
Just then a man came and said that I would have to leave and come back at another time.
My little friend saw me to the door, and I couldn’t help being touched by the hope in his eyes as we said goodbye. He was about to start a new life in Canada.
Volunteers are busy preparing items for newcomers
Celia Clark of the Rotary Club sorts some items at the Salvations Army’s Victoria Road location in Guelph. Everything dropped off must be sorted and arranged by volunteers. Bedding, clothes, furnishings, kitchen items and so on have been coming in steady thanks to lots of media attention, she said.
Part of the fun is going through each bag and seeing what’s inside. One particular bag is the talk of the volunteers. “We won’t tell you about the sexy underwear,” she said, laughing. The place is alive as volunteers fold and box up items, chatting away.
Clark co-ordinates the volunteers. “A lot of volunteers came to donate, then came back to help,” she said.
She owns a software company and has the tools to send out mass emails and quickly schedule the volunteers using an interactive database called doodle.com. They receive the schedule and simply click on a shift they want to work and send it back.
She still needs some strong, young people to help move furniture into the homes of newcomers throughout the spring.
Syrian family loving Guelph after 7 months
Ahmad Alhilal and his family were some of the first Syrians to leave the country after tensions began in March 2011. They arrived in Jordan later that year and did what they could to make ends meet while going through the long process of immigrating to Canada. They arrived in Guelph in June 2015.
Dublin Street Church sponsored the family through the United Church of Canada, a sponsorship agreement holder. Alhilal said he did not know where they were headed once in Canada. They were on a list of 300 possible names. It was the luck of the draw they ended up Guelph, he said.
Since arriving in Guelph, the church has looked after them every step of the way, and they are very happy in their apartment in the west end. Not knowing any English when arriving, seven months later he can now have a conversation without an interpreter. He has a part-time job at an auto body shop. His goal is to become an auto mechanic, but he needs to improve his English first.
Asked multiple questions on how they liked Guelph, the repeated answer was “jayed” which meant good, he said.
Winter has been a little rough, but the kids have had fun sliding down a local hill.
They are very grateful to be in Guelph and they will be helping out the soon-to-be-arriving 76 families any way they can.