It all began with a searing and arresting image: a stretch of Turkish Aegean shoreline, near Bodrum, and a uniformed police officer, tenderly carrying the lifeless, little body of 3yr old Aylan Kurdi. He was being carried away from the waters that claimed his young life and those of his older brother Galib, 5, and his mother Reham. Young Aylan and his family were in the midst of a dangerous journey, a desperate struggle to flee Syria and to join family in Canada. The father, Abdullah, would be the sole survivor of that young kurdish family. The heart-wrenching scene depicted in that image would galvanize a community to action.
In September 2015 discussions began within the congregation of Bridge Street United Church in Belleville. How could we begin a sponsorship process, providing a sanctuary of peace and security for a refugee family, and relieve their suffering? Very quickly, those conversations drew in interested folk, initially from St.Matthew’s United Church and later Eastminster United Church, both also in Belleville. Interest came in from other nearby faith communities as well. We spread the word and our request for Arabic speaking help was answered. Arabic speakers associated with the Islamic Society of Belleville, and others beyond that Muslim community provided indispensable help with communications. We would eventually identify ourselves as “United Syrian Family Support – Belleville”; a genuine, multi-faith and secular response, united in purpose, to a growing catastrophe in our world.
Our first task was to establish our interest with the United Church of Canada’s refugee program. As a registered sponsorship agreement holder with Canadian immigration authorities, they could connect our group with a family in need of sponsorship. Our efforts were rewarded with the approval of our sponsorship application. A Syrian family was identified as being in need of resettlement in Canada, and they were matched to us fairly promptly. A husband, wife and three boys comprised the family that had been languishing in a Lebanese refugee camp for two years. During this time, the boys were not receiving essential learning through schooling, along with having their health compromised and living conditions in general simply inadequate.
Now we had to complete a significant amount of preparation. Schooling needed to be arranged for the boys and adult ESL language instruction was needed for the parents. Arrangements for health assessments after their arrival need to be confirmed. Adequate housing needed to be arranged and household goods and furnishings needed to be gathered. Transportation by volunteers needed to be lined up along with communications help from our Arabic speaking volunteers and help with other domestic needs such as grocery shopping. And we needed to raise money to pay for this, along with the government.
Finally, in early December 2015 our family arrived. As a Joint Assistance Sponsorship with the Government of Canada, they received initial help in Ottawa with registration for landed immigrant status and Ontario health coverage. We had the pleasure of picking up our family and bringing them back to Belleville and their new home just before the Christmas school break. The boys spent a couple weeks getting introduced into their new school classes before the holiday break. In the new year, school resumed for the boys and their parents began adult ESL instruction as well.
There were many things we needed to learn. We needed a more comprehensive understanding of the refugee experience, and specifically, the historical and cultural background to the country of Syria. We also needed a greater understanding of the faith tenets of Islam and the cultural mores that are observed.
One of the things we learned along the way is that we needed to anchor this family in the community. One way to do this was through family reunification. Sponsoring parents, and siblings of the parents of our initial family, would allay a lot of fear and anxiety over loved ones. So, with the opening of a window of opportunity in March 2016 to extend the February deadline for refugee applications, we obtained the approval of our applications to have these folk admitted as well. We will be receiving a widowed mother, a set of parents, and the families of three siblings, a total if 18 individuals, beginning in the fall of 2016 and into early 2017.
As a result, we have received partnership offers from other groups to take on the support of these additions. One group is from the parish of St.Joseph’s Catholic Church of Belleville. Another group in the community has expressed interest in the very near future.
As a sponsorship group, our legal obligation is to provide financial support to our first family for two years, beginning in December 2015. The new families carry one year obligations, upon their arrival. Solicitation for financial support will continue to be an ongoing effort as these families transition to a new life in our community.