The following post is adapted from a talk given by Katherine Martinko to the Saugeen Shores P.A.R.C. 55+ group in August. It provides an update on the Alibrahim family’s integration into Canadian life, six months after arrival.
So much has happened since the refugee committee picked up this family in Toronto on January 30th and drove them to this snowy, gray town. Since then, the family has discovered that warm weather does exist in Canada after all, and so does sunshine and plant life! For a long while, I don’t think they believed me when I promised it would eventually arrive.
You may recall that the Alibrahim family is unusual for its size. There are two parents, named Saad and Ghaydaa, and twelve biological children, who range in age from 19 to nine months. There are 7 boys and 5 girls. As you can imagine, visits to their house are chaotic on a level that even I, with three little kids at home, struggle to comprehend. I used to think it was hard to get out the door in the morning with my guys, but now I have a totally new perspective on things after seeing Saad and Ghaydaa in action with nine children to deliver to school and three to take to daycare.
Despite this, Ghaydaa and her oldest daughters manage to produce incredible meals that feed this vast tribe twice a day. Platters of roasted chicken, cumin-scented beef kebabs, fried fish, rice pilaf, cucumber salads, and my absolute favourite – something called kibbeh that tastes like a giant oily falafel stuffed with spicy ground beef – appear on their dining table with stunning regularity. How they do it, I don’t know. I can barely make sandwiches.
At the same time, Ghaydaa and Saad continue to commute to Owen Sound daily for English classes. They are part of a wonderful program run by the Alliance Church, taught by a Canadian couple named David and Andy Foster. The Fosters used to live in Egypt and speak Arabic, which puts them in a unique position for teaching English to all the adult newcomers who have arrived in the Grey-Bruce area in recent months. These include Syrians, Iraqis, and some Eritreans (who speak an obscure language called Afar that apparently doesn’t even exist in Google Translate, making matters especially hard for their sponsors).
When our Saugeen Shores group embarked on refugee sponsorship, we never knew this particular English program would exist, and yet it has become one of our region’s greatest assets for refugee resettlement. Thanks to the Fosters and the Alliance Church, families like ours are able to maintain a sense of community with other Syrians and Arabic speakers, celebrating common religious holidays, sharing meals, and supporting each other in the huge transition from life in the war-torn Middle East to peaceful Canada. I used to worry about how isolated the Alibrahims would feel living here in Port Elgin, but when I brought up the possibility of eventual relocation to a larger urban centre, I was met with horror by Saad and Ghaydaa, who told me they love it here.
Just last week, the entire English class, their families, sponsors, and volunteers were given free passes by the owners of Storybook Park. There must have been 70 of us who descended on the park for several hours. While the women and children rode rollercoasters, some for the first time, with their head scarves flying and laughter ringing loudly, the men fired up a whole line of barbecues at the pavilion and grilled meat for an impressive lunch. It was an emotional sight to see these families so happy and settled here, after who knows how many years of turmoil.
The Alibrahims have settled into their home, built friendships with their neighbours, learned to navigate the town. You may have seen some of their kids whipping around town on bicycles that were kindly donated by the Tiverton Lion’s Club. The family now has a vehicle – a used minivan that requires two trips to get the family anywhere, but it has given them much-needed independence for grocery shopping, running errands, and getting to Owen Sound.
Six of the kids attended Saugeen Central from February until June. The oldest boy, Ahmad, graduated from grade 8 and will be moving to the high school in the fall. He told me he cried when it came time to say goodbye to his teacher, Mrs. Sollors, and that she cried, too. “I don’t want to go to high school. I wish I could stay with her forever,” he said.
The younger kids are enrolled in summer day camps. Most of them play soccer; some are swimming, and attending the Southampton Music Camp. The three oldest kids all have summer jobs. Aisha is holding down two, working at Shopper’s Drug Mart and Giant Tiger. Ibrahim was given a position in a local roofing company, and Mohamad was hired by Canadian Tire. Their father Saad is also working part-time at Piper’s Glen Golf Course on weekends.
All of these jobs were created for this family by local business owners who reached out to our committee and asked to hire them. These employers have embraced the kids and Saad, trained them, and treated them with incredible patience because they believe in their ability to succeed in Canada and want to do what they can to give them a leg up. This ongoing generosity continues to affirm what I believed from the very beginning – that this community would be a perfect match for refugee resettlement.
What you’re all probably wondering is when the next family is going to arrive. I’m wondering the same thing, too. The way things stand right now is, we’ve got enough money to sponsor two more refugee families and will do so as soon as the federal government lets us. As of last week, we were #22 on a list of sponsorship groups working through Mennonite Central Committee, our facilitating organization, which means that nobody else is going to arrive before 2017. We’ve expanded our criteria to include refugees of all kinds, from anywhere in the world, but still the process is painfully slow.
I’ll admit this is frustrating for me. The government upheld its promise to bring 25,000 refugees into Canada, but as soon as it met that goal, the floodgates were closed and groups like ours were told to get back in line and wait indefinitely – this, despite having responded to the government’s own request that Canadian citizens step forward to aid with resettlement. We were fortunate, however, to get the Alibrahims as quickly as we did, and admittedly, with 14 family members, we’ve had our work cut out for us over the past half-year.
But we are ready for the next family, whenever that may be. The money has been raised, is being held in trust by Mennonite Central Committee, and my group is committed to seeing this through, no matter how many years it takes.