Arriving in a new country can be a scary experience, but when Najwa and Reyad Al Hamoud arrived in Canada they were greeted with jumps of joy.
Elaine Hofer, one of the Al Hamoud family’s sponsors, had driven two hours from a Hutterite colony near Brandon, Manitoba, to meet the new arrivals at the Winnipeg airport. “When they came down the escalator [at the airport], I started to jump I was so excited,” Hofer says.
This sentiment is one that is shared by many of the hosts who have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees to their new Canadian homes. Private refugee sponsorship represents a whole world of new opportunities for Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, but the excitement is not limited to the new arrivals. Syrian refugees bring a wealth of new life experiences for their Canadian sponsors and hosts—experiences they would never have known about had they not welcomed these newcomers into their lives. In the words of Canadian hosts, these are some of the best things about meeting Syrian refugees.
1. Embracing tradition
Hutterite community sponsors of the Al Hamouds in Brandon, Manitoba felt an immediate bond with the family and as it turned out, the feeling was mutual. Hutterites have unique traditions which distinguish them from other Canadians-they wear traditional clothing, speak German as their first language, and have passed down their traditional way of life from generation to generation.
The Al Hamouds also have a strong sense of tradition. They are practising Muslims, Najwa wears a hijab, and she and her husband were nervous about adapting to life in Canada. When they saw the respect that their sponsors had for their own traditions, however, they felt comforted.
“I would have to say, bar having my children and getting married, this is one of the most important things that I’ve ever done.”
Paul Waldner, one of the family’s sponsors, points out that his own ancestors were once refugees. “People were always there to help them,” Waldner says. Now, Waldner’s people are continuing the tradition of helping others by extending a helping hand to the Al Hamouds.
2. Providing safety
Canadian sponsors welcoming Syrian refugees to the country are providing one of the greatest gifts possible to new arrivals—safety and the chance of a new start in life. In January 2016, Cindy Murphy helped welcome the Al Zhouris, a Syrian family of five, to their new home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. For Murphy, the chief desire in welcoming the Al Zhouris was to provide them with a safe place to build their lives. “You take on a private sponsorship of a refugee family and the motivation to do that is to provide a family in need with a secure, safe place—a haven,” Murphy says.
Now, Murphy ranks this private sponsorship as one of the greatest experiences of her life. “I would have to say, bar having my children and getting married, this is one of the most important things that I’ve ever done,” she says.
3. Sharing culture
Faraidoun Akhavan arrived in Canada as a refugee 20 years ago. Today, he continues to celebrate his Middle Eastern heritage by playing his Persian lute, known as a barbat. Recently, Faraidoun and his wife Paulina Eguiguren helped Sari Alesh, a Syrian refugee, to find a new home in Victoria, B.C. Alesh is a classically trained violinist who played with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra.
“After we met for five minutes, they became family.”
Upon meeting, Faraidoun and Paulina knew there was something special about the Syrian violinist. “There was something about him that was a bit different,” Paulina says. “I think I identified the art in him—the compassion that people can only get when you have gone through suffering.” This recognition quickly turned into something deeper. “They touched my heart quickly,” Alesh says. “After we met for five minutes, they became family.”
4. Providing New Opportunities
In January 2016, Raquel de Queiroz, a nurse practitioner in Whitehorse, Yukon, led a group of residents to bring the Arafats, a family of 11, to the Yukon’s capital city. For de Queiroz, the motivation to sponsor the Arafats came from her desire to provide the family with new opportunities.
Before getting involved in refugee sponsorship, de Queiroz had worked in Colombia for Doctors Without Borders, and this experience taught her the importance of helping others. When she found out about the Arafat family, she was excited about being able to open up educational opportunities for the family.
“One of the main reasons that Hussein [Arafat] has explained to us that he wanted to come to Canada was to give his children the opportunity for a good education,” de Queiroz says, “they want to pursue their dreams.” It is because of her passion for helping others that these dreams will now come true.
5. Sharing the Excitement of a New Life
Thuy Nguyen arrived in Canada as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975 along with seven of her 15 siblings. Forty-one years later, she greeted the Noumans, a Syrian refugee family of nine at the Toronto airport to welcome them to Canada for the first time. For Nguyen, this meeting brought back a powerful mix of memories and emotions.
When you’re a refugee, Nguyen says, “you have the optimism of a young person—aware of all the wonderful things that you are going to do.” It’s this same optimism that Nguyen saw in the faces of the Nouman family when she greeted them at the airport in January 2016. “I could empathize with what they were feeling. I could feel their sense of loss. But I could also feel their sense excitement for a new beginning,” Nguyen says.
“I could empathize with what they were feeling. I could feel their sense of loss. But I could also feel their sense excitement for a new beginning.”
That new beginning has now turned into a lifelong bond. “The sponsors and I have promised to stay in touch with each other for the rest of our lives,” says Mohamed Nouman. “They took us in and I can’t ever repay them. But if ever one of them gets sick or needs me, I want them to call. I will help.”
6. Learning New Perspectives
Tanna is a member of a volunteer group in Peterborough that has helped over 60 Syrian refugee families resettle in southern Ontario over the past year. “We’ve all just done what our heart told us to do,” she says. The volunteer group of 15 organizes private sponsorship for Syrian refugee families and helps families adjust to their new life in Canada by offering support in the form of household supplies, transport, and dinner invitations.
For Winston, another member of the volunteer group, the experience of welcoming refugees has brought new perspectives on life. “I know the refugees are grateful to be safe in Canada,” Winston says, “and we, as Canadians, are the fortunate ones to have them here with us. We are better for it.”
For these Canadian hosts, welcoming Syrian refugees has meant sacrifices in terms of time, energy, and finances. Far outweighing these sacrifices, however, is the profound and rewarding experience of helping refugees feel at home. Some sponsors see their own stories reflected in these families, while for others, the experiences are completely new. For every Canadian host, however, the reward they get from welcoming a new arrival is one that will last a lifetime.
These stories have been collected from UNHCR’s From Far and Wide series on Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. Read the full series here.