Whats your story?
In December of 2015, my heart trembled in tears from seeing the horrible news every day on social media on the cruel war in Syria, and how many children became orphans, women left as widows, families deserted, and the increasing numbers of innocent lives being taken every single day. I became preoccupied with the fact that the global community was resisting on aiding these refugees and the question of whether these individuals could be trusted. I saw the extremely biased points of view being spread by mainstream media and some individuals, which turned people cold-hearted, and distance themselves from the reality the Syrian people were facing. I felt I must do something to give the innocent people of Syria a fair voice.
In my home in Canada, every day the voice in my soul grew stronger, “if not me, then who?” “This isn’t just a political battle, but a battle between dark and light, between indifference and love, which side do I choose to be on?” In my sadness and feeling of helplessness I spoke to the Creator who is, in my view, love itself. I asked: why does the world have so much injustice? Why are innocent children going through such degrees of sufferings? Why are the world powers so careless of people? Why are humans not loving and helping each other but being so judgemental and isolated? Why did God let evil exist if God is love, and we are part of love? Why are some of our human families suffering in darkness and others are not loving and helping them? If we tolerate the massacre and injustice in Syria, and not to do everything we can to help our Syrian civilian human fellows, we are tolerating evil and allowing it to grow, and it will, and could spread over the entire earth, into our lives, our families, affecting our children and ourselves. Is this the world we want to live in? Is this the future we want: a world suffering from lack of love? God, what can I do to help?
During my prayers, I felt tremendous love grow in me, a love that travels instantly to the ends of the earth, to Syria, to be with the people there. I felt the power of that love uplifting them, protecting them, sustaining them in their darkest times. I knew that it was up to me to do something; I can change the world, even though I was one person, I had the spiritual strength of God because God made the universe, and love is what sustains it, and all of us in it. By doing this work to love humanity, I have tapped into the greatest power in creation-true love.
So I started taking action with what I could do. I was 27 years old, studied Advertising in college, I thought at least I could give Syrian people a fair voice. So I created a Facebook page to support awareness of a Syria which is more than just conflict. An example is the Facebook page: Beautiful Syrian People, Arts, and Culture, its purpose is to promote Syrian culture, food, and art, so that people can relate to Syrians as human beings and feel compassion for them, instead of relating to them as impersonal “numbers” of “a crisis” as portrayed by general media at that time, and refuse to help the millions that were forced out of their homes abruptly and inhumanely.
Shortly after I ran those Facebook pages, the husband of our now-sponsored family sent me a message on Facebook, briefly told me his situation and that he has been trying to come to Canada. They were in Lebanon at that time, and were able to use the Internet. I scheduled a Skype meeting with him and his wife on the next day. I didn’t know what to anticipate about the meeting, I was going to meet someone of a different culture I was not familiar with at all. I imagined them being emotionally traumatized by the war, I was not a professional counsellor, and didn’t know what to expect.
I was not sure if I had what it takes to help them to come to Canada, but the voice inside me gave me assurance that if I decided to do it, everything would unfold and help will come, and it will be done. When we met on Skype, to my surprise, they didn’t sound depressed, but full of optimism, and even were comforting me to not worry about them. They were such sweethearts. I learnt that they are both musicians, around same age as me, and that they fled Syria a few years ago to Lebanon, and they were in a dire situation needing to be helped to come to Canada. We talked and got to know each other and then we played some music for each other, and the fascinating thing is that both of them at that time were volunteering at refugee camps doing music therapy for children, and I, on the other hand, was in Toronto also volunteering at Children’s Hospital doing music healing for children. We became friends immediately. After the call, I had the knowledge that confirmed my feeling during my prayer – this is hand picked by God, God knows I would understand them, trust them, and do what it takes to help them. It was a leap of faith for me to take on this mission. But I also felt in my heart that there is no other choice for me but to take this path, like that’s why I am alive.
FIGURING IT OUT
Before I met the couple, I had been involved with some volunteer works that involved helping ease the settlement process of Syrian newcomers accepted by the Canadian government, and running some Facebook campaigns to advocate for Syrian civilians. That was the most inspiring period of my life; to witness first hand and to work with so many regular Canadians in completely non-government related grass-root foundations, who were doing what they could to help Syrian people.
Because they listened to their hearts, they knew they had to stand up and do something during the peak of this humanitarian crisis. In that period, I also came across Lifeline Syria, and was very inspired by what they do, I saw they were trying to save lives, and to educate Canadians on how to save lives with them.
After meeting with the Syrian couple, I contacted Lifeline Syria, and found out the few ways for Syrians to be sponsored to come, and because of the long wait list at that time for government based sponsorship, private sponsorship was the most assured and fastest way. So then I started looking into group of five private sponsorship.
GETTING IT DONE
The risk to my rational mind wasthat: at that time, I had no stable job, and was renting by myself, only making enough to make my ends meet each month. And through research into Lifeline Syria’s information for private sponsorship, there needed to be over $20,000 Canadian dollars in order to provide one year of support for them, to even be qualified for sponsorship. I didn’t have the money, and where would I look for the other four individuals who would be willing to take on this one year of responsibility with me to help two strangers they haven’t met?
This was a big challenge for my creativity to solve. So, I started looking for people, one lady was already wanting to help the Syrian couple before meeting me because she knew the friend who was friend with the Syrian couple in Lebanon. So I need to find three more. I spoke to every person I could in my friend circle, spoke to people I have met through the Syrian film festival, people I have worked with in Giveback Toronto (an organization founded by a few people to focus on helping homeless/poor), and even spoke to people on Facebook who hadn’t even met me.
God delivered His promise through me; I found three more people, and had two extra to help out. The group was formed, after eight months time of research and planning for their arrival, facilitation between the group members, emotional support and encouragement for the Syrian couple in Lebanon through Skype calls, assistance in completing the forms correctly both from the Syrian couple and from each member of the group, I reached out to Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, (they helped to check all the forms, and were crucial in helping me finding the right direction for this sponsorship to happen, they had real-time, accurate information and one-on-one assistance through promptly responsive phone calls and emails), and consistent prayers for God’s assistance, the papers were completed, and finally, mailed out.
WAITING WITH HOPE FOR NEW LIFE
Then, all we could do was to wait. Several months passed; we didn’t hear back, and after a few emails we wrote to Immigration Canada, we got confirmation that the sponsorship application was approved by Immigration Canada, but still had to be examined and approved by Lebanon Canadian immigration office. Then another eight months passed, nothing came back to us. The Syrian family had to endure another eight months of physical and emotional endangerment. That was a very difficult time for all of us.
Each of the sponsors tried to have video or audio call with the family, we encouraged them to not give up hope, and reassuring for them that everything will be ok, and we are fighting, and will keep fighting for them until we bring them to safety. Even though inside, we all experienced uncertainty over the situation. But I knew in my heart that because we are doing this for an important good cause, the loving Creator would move mountains and part seas to help us.
THE GOOD NEWS
After numerous efforts to contact the Lebanon Canadian Immigration office through emails (from sponsors) and in person visits (by the sponsored family), finally the family got the interview call. And then quickly after, their application was approved; they went through security check, health check, got a Government loan for their flight ticket and got on their flight to Canada.
The long-anticipated day of welcoming our new families at the airport has finally arrived: the sponsors welcomed them at the airport. I don’t think any of us could forget the amount of joy filled our entire heart and soul that day.
What was your primary concern when you were first connected with your family?
The primary concerns I had when first meeting them were the following:
- What is the fastest way to bring them to safety? Government sponsorship was a lengthy process, which could leave the family in further danger. Through research, we found the wait time to SAH (Sponsorship Agreement Holder) is too long; the Canadian regulations of immigration could change at any time, so I decided to go for private sponsorship of group of five where we had the best chance at success with most control in our hands.
- Are they trust-worthy people?Because of the things I heard from mainstream media regarding the Syrian crisis focused mainly on the negative effects of the refugee crisis on other countries, I too had slight fear in the back of my mind regarding the legitimacy of the people I was talking to. But when I connected with them over Skype, all the doubts went away, because I saw they were so similar to me in so many ways. The mind can be defensive at times, but when we recognize the other as truly our own kind, the human-kind, our heart opens and love overcomes all fear and guide us on the path of light.
- How do I properly communicate with them so I do not further their painful experiences and memories? How do I show empathy?Since our initial meeting on Skype, I realized how strong and optimistic they are! It was so inspiring and humbling. They were comforting me to not worry about them! They had so much hope for life and endurance for their extreme circumstance, it really helped me to also appreciate my life more.
- Am I able to successfully gather the group of five sponsors to form sponsorship group? How do I convince other people to take on one year of liability to help someone they do not know that are from a distressed part of the world?This part turned out to be the most challenging, because people have their own responsibilities, and their own timelines. In order to coordinate the whole group to fill out their forms, provide documents, fundraise, and to trust in what we are doing although it felt insane at times, I needed to be the leader, the believer, the encourager, and the biggest doer of it all to push the sponsorship through. All of us in the group have grown much in our own ways, overcoming our own fears, insecurities, and challenges. I am extremely proud of each of them including myself for overcoming all the challenges and able to finish the sponsorship.
What resources did you find most helpful in equipping newcomers for their life in Canada?
- Woodgreen.org: helped with finding an apartment that was reserved for newcomers. All apartments we searched required co-signers, and even with co-signers it was difficult to have any of them accept our application, so Woodgreen was tremendously helpful in offering an apartment that did not require credit history etc.
- letgo.com: for free or used furniture, electronics, clothing, etc.
- Lifeline Syria: provides information on multiple sponsorship options; provides how-to-guides on how to form a group of five and clarification of settlement requirements; provides support resources for sponsors and new comers.
- Agincourt Community Services: Helped to find job, they didn’t require prior Canadian work experience (Other types of community services could help too)
- Refugee Jumpstart Project: Helps newcomers with jobs in the community that do not require a degree or much work experience.
- Facebook Communities: to connect with other sponsor groups and new comers
What was the most challenging aspect of integrating newcomers?
Cultural integration has been the most challenging aspect in our family’s journey. Something as simple as driving you have to relearn as driving rules and conduct are extremely different here than in Syria. Another challenge we faced was our family not wanting to be labelled as “newcomers” or “refugees”. Our family explained that they did not want to be associated with the labels which came with these titles. They don’t want to be seen as the poor or desperate or needy. They want to be seen as working professionals, capable and proven to be contributing to society positively. They want to be seen as successful musicians. Finding an apartment. Most apartments need guarantors that have a much longer history in Canada and stable income, to co-sign the lease terms. Additionally, many apartments don’t agree to rent to newcomers even if there are co-signers. This is an immediate barrier for any family relocating in Canada.
Resettlement is a time consuming and frustrating process – what was the best way your sponsored family relieved the pressures of resettlement?
We had a friend of one of the sponsors that offered her basement unit as an initial settlement location for the family. That alleviated lots of pressure from the group, because there were a few months of free accommodation, which allowed the family and sponsors to focus more on establishing themselves professionally here. As they themselves wished to be established as professionals within music performance and teaching and child education, instead of taking on any job just to make enough to pay rent.
The sponsors would take it in turn to see the family and take them out to familiarize themselves with their new neighbourhood, explore their city, spend quality time together with them, while also introducing them to Canadian culture. We visited museums and exhibitions, explored garage sales for new belongings and familiarized the family with essential locations to know.
One of my focuses was that all of the sponsors treated our family like their own! Not just for one year, but also for a lifetime. It is not just one-side helping then leaving; it is a mutual experience of learning and acknowledging the joy, fulfilment and inspiration of this experience. Whether it is doing groceries or exploring Toronto, we always remember to have fun.
What is one thing you learned from helping this family integrate?
It’s ok to show your fear and insecurities. They didn’t expect us to be perfectly strong for them. They understand how much work and stress it could be for us, and they try to work with us to make things better. They have tried to rely on themselves for anything they could, so we can do less but enjoy more time with them. We are truly blessed with such wonderfully kind people to sponsor.
This journey was a learning experience for us all. The sponsors would work with the family together to make decisions. As sponsors who are financially responsible for the family for a year, and people who have lived in Canada for years, we thought we knew the best, and gave advice. However, at times we needed to step back and consider the family’s emotional needs from their experiences and trauma faced. We needed to learn from our family and consider how our advice might come off as insensitive or too stressful for them. From the perspective of the sponsored family, they saw things more idealistically when compared with the sponsors’ perspectives. Therefore, when making decisions sometimes we did not have the same expectations and could not meet in the middle. It was through empathy that the sponsors were able to understand the more idealistic thinking of the family, and the family was able to understand the more practical suggestions of the sponsors.
How has media on public opinion of immigration and refugees affected your opinion of how inclusive Canada is?
I came to know dominant Canadian perspective on the refugee and immigration situation mainly through Facebook. I came across many grass-root non-profit organizations in Canada founded recently to support newcomers, which were made possible by volunteers. Groups such as “refugee jumpstart project”, “refugee buddy network” and “the clothing store”, etc. I volunteered at some and took time to look into Facebook groups where people were posting questions and sharing ideas and resources to help. So in my perspective, Canadians were really demonstrating compassionate attitudes and actions of justice that the world could learn from.
What has been the best and most memorable moment of sponsoring a family?
During the long waiting process, in one Skype meeting, the family told me, “thank you, we love you. We want you to know that we are living for what you are doing for us”. The entire process was a gift. The most character-building, emotionally challenging and maturing, and spiritually meaningful event I have had the blessing to be a part of. From meeting them online, to meeting them in person finally in Canada, to being a part of their lives, celebrating with them at their first concert, all the moments on this journey no matter sad, joyful, stressed, worried, or faithful, were all memorable and powerful. It’s such joy to get to celebrate with them their every milestone in their new life. They are actively involved in music performances, working in music education, and child education. They are even running music therapy workshops for traumatized children (since they were in Lebanon they had ran workshops in refugee camps). Next year they are planning to go to colleges for continued education.
How do you think testimony and research can work together to help raise awareness of newcomer settlement challenges and increase compassion?
I think the biggest stopper for people to take action for sponsorship, or to even have a more inclusive attitude towards is the lack of understanding. People learn about the Syrian crisis mainly from mainstream media, where most often instead of people, there are just numbers, and instead of distressed human relatives, they are just problems. When the subject is viewed with such extreme rationality, people are not able to relate to Syrian refugees on a compassionate level. The heart is where you can find the answer to take the right course of actions. Through sharing testimonies like our personal sponsorship story, people can understand the similarities we truly have with Syrians – we are all vulnerable and we all need help at times. These success stories can also help to give more confidence to people who are considering sponsorship, by setting an example and sharing practical knowledge and experiences. Research is also important because prejudice comes from ignorance. We are only fearful because we do not know the truth. Research would give us facts, to provide fair and realistic data that do not just categorise a nation’s people under one label.
Being a sponsor:
We are looking for more Canadians who are willing to join together and form sponsor groups to help save lives.
You don’t have to know the process or have five people in order to start; we are here to facilitate the groups (group of five) if you need more people, and we are here to provide guidance.
If you are thinking of sponsoring, doubting if you are capable, or in the process of completing a sponsorship, we are here to help by offering our own experiences, knowledge, and support.
Donation of funds:
To qualify for a private group of five sponsorship, for a single refugee, we need around $15000 for a year’s support, however through our experience, the sponsored family could get a job to support themselves in about 3-months, so this means we want to achieve at least $5000 as a start-up fund for each refugee to last them through the first 3-4 months.
Our current two running sponsorships are for Shah, and for Sahil.
You can buy these artworks made by Shah, one of the Afghanistan men from the Indonesian detention camps we are working on to sponsor right now to fund his coming-home to Canada! The many will go to his sponsorship.
His website: www.shahsart.com/mothers-day-cards-colour.html
You can also donate to Sahil at this GoFundMe page. His story is also available here: https://ca.gofundme.com/join-usbring-sahil-to-canada
If you want to donate to the general funds’ pool so we can start facilitate more sponsorship cases, or if you want to host fundraising events, email us for information.
If you want to be a sponsor, or are doubting if you can, talk to us. You don’t need to have a team of five, we can help to group you. You don’t need to have the funds, we can work on it as a team. You don’t have to have complete knowledge, we can help to guide you to the right resources.
If you need help with your own sponsorship case, we are here to help.
We can be reached at:
We need your help! They need your help! These human fellows are struggling in unjust situations they did not choose to be in. We are each other’s lifelines, we are each other’s hope. We cannot tolerate indifference in the world, because we are each other’s dear most, we’ve only got each other! We must take action now in order to help saving them! We just need you to join us, our team of regular people who believe in love and believe in our human freedom.
As a team, together we can do Great BIG things for all of us humankind!