2nd family has arrived!!!

Two parents, four kids, and several very excited and emotional volunteers

Our second newcomer family has arrived in Saugeen Shores! They had a long, exhausting journey from Tanzania to South Africa, and then all the way to Toronto, but they showed up in the airport wearing big smiles and their Sunday best. The four children were polite and patient during the long drive home. Upon arriving in Port Elgin, we drove past their rental house (which they’ll move into on November 1st) and they clapped excitedly. They were also thrilled to see the school.

airport pickup
Meeting the family for the first time at the airport

For now, they will stay in temporary accommodations and begin the long process of integrating into a foreign community and learning English. They speak only a few basic words, no French, only Swahili.

Two of the four children, arriving in Port Elgin

What we need help with:

Many people have kindly expressed a desire to donate household goods and clothing to the family. Here is a list of specific items we need at this time. If you would like to help out with one or more of these items, please notify us so it can be removed from the list and we do not receive duplicates. Contact info is at bottom of post.

– Bathroom supply kit (toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, deodorant, sanitary pads, dental floss, washcloth, etc.)
– First aid kit
– Minor medications kit (Tylenol, Gravol, etc.)
– Grocery carrier or wagon (for making trips on foot to Walmart)
– Toys for kids (baseball gloves, soccer ball, Frisbee, colouring books and craft supplies)
– Clothing & footwear (running shoes and winter boots) for specific ages: 12-year-old girl, 9-yr-old boy, 7-yr-old girl, 4-yr-old boy, 2 parents (both are slight and small). At this point, they need everything — pants, skirts, shirts, undershirts, etc.

Looking for volunteer drivers:

Soon we hope to get the parents enrolled in English classes at the ESL school in Owen Sound. Classes run from 9 AM till 2 PM, Mon-Fri. We are looking for volunteer drivers who can take them either one way, one or more days per week, or who can drive both directions on a particular day. We are happy to work with whatever people’s schedules are.

Note: In order to do this, however, you will need to complete a vulnerable sector background check, as is required of anyone working with refugees under Canadian law.

Please let us know what you can provide! And thank you to the entire community for your ongoing support of this exciting resettlement effort.

You can reach on Facebook, via email at saugeen.refugeefund@gmail.com or call/text Katherine at (519) 389-8672.

The excited and hardworking SSRF committee (L-R): Katherine Martinko, Tara Somerville, Kim Blackmore, Mariam Joudeh, Betsy Palko (missing from photo: Andy Evans and Greg Primeau)

Help with Housing

Děti ze školy
Refugee camp in Zambia, where our next family used to live

We have received notice that our next newcomer family will make the trip from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to Saugeen Shores within 4 to 8 weeks, but no actual date has been set. Because of the way the government process works, housing is an extremely complicated process.

First, we’re not allowed to rent a house more than one month in advance, since many families can be delayed.

Second, we will have 10 days’ notice at most before the family arrives at the Toronto airport, which means we’ll be scrambling to secure housing on time. (We had only three days’ warning before our first newcomer family came in 2015.)

Finally, it’s summer in Saugeen Shores – and we all know what that means for trying to find an affordable rental at the last minute.

What Mennonite Central Committee recommends is trying to find a temporary housing solution, where the family has a place to go and settle for a few weeks while we try to find the best possible permanent location.

So I’m putting this question out to the community: Do you know of any possible temporary housing solutions where a family of six could live for a few weeks? It can be simple and small – a basement apartment, a granny suite, a cottage, etc. It can be in either Port Elgin or Southampton.

(Note: It may not even be used, depending on what luck we have finding a permanent place for them.)

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or offers to make. By September, it will be much easier to find somewhere for them to live. You can call (519) 832-4525 or send an email: saugeen.refugeefund[at]gmail.com. You can also reach me (Katherine) on Facebook.

Once we know what the housing situation is, and whether or not the family will have a furnished rental, we will notify the community about the need for furniture and other household donations. We WILL need clothing for the family.

Thank you!

Katherine Martinko, communications coordinator for SSRF

2nd family coming soon!

The Saugeen Shores Refugee Fund is thrilled to announce that we’ve been matched with a second family for resettlement! Official paperwork has been signed, but we do not yet know a precise arrival date. It will be sometime within the next 1 to 4 months.

Interestingly, this new family comes from Central Africa, with some members born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and others in Zambia. There are two parents and four school-aged children. A fifth young child is missing, but if found, he will join the family in Canada.

An MCC food distribution, with local partner ECS-SUDRA, in Unity State, South Sudan where the United Nations has declared a famine.

This sponsorship will take us in a completely new direction. It’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling as we try to build a support network for these strangers from a part of the world that most of us know very little about. Central Africa has faced tremendous violence, and now widespread famine, but its plight is much less publicized than Syria’s conflict.

From Mennonite Central Committee:

“For more than two decades, the DRC has struggled with conflict in eastern provinces. As of Nov 2014, an estimated 2.6 million Congolese were internally displaced and nearly 500,000 had fled into neighbouring countries. Non-state armed groups and elements of the Congolese army (FARDC) threaten civilians.”

Our sponsorship group will be learning as much as we can about the region and its culture(s) over the next few weeks, and we hope to organize a community information night in the near future to help prepare Saugeen Shores for these newcomers. We’ll keep you posted.

If you want to help: We are beginning to think about housing, which will be a challenge during the summer months. (The family will almost certainly be here by mid-September.) We cannot rent more than a month in advance. If you have any solid leads for a 3-bedroom year-round rental in Port Elgin or Southampton, please get in touch. Send an email to knmartinko[at]gmail.com.

If you know of anyone who speaks Swahili, please send them our way! We’ve been very fortunate to find one translator, but the more we can find, the easier it will be for everyone.

Thank you, Saugeen Shores, for making this possible with your incredible financial donations and ongoing social support.

We did it! Sponsorship #1 is done.

Yesterday (January 30) marked the one-year anniversary since our Syrian family arrived in Saugeen Shores. Now the Saugeen Shores Refugee Fund is no longer legally tied to the Al Ibrahim family in any way and they are officially on their own, permanent residents and, hopefully, eventual citizens of Canada. It’s thanks to you, the members of this community, that they have a safe new place to call home.

Two of the littlest girls entertaining my mother Elizabeth with English nursery rhymes they’ve learned at school

We continue to await matching with a second family profile and do not know how long that will take. Last we heard, we were 16th in line with Mennonite Central Committee, but the government stated that, on January 30th, it would resume matching sponsorship groups with refugees that fall into our particular category (known as the Blended Office Visa Referral, or BVOR, program, where sponsorship is shared between group and government). Matches will be made until the annual quota of 1,500 people is reached, and we have every reason to expect to be part of that number.

Our efforts to resettle refugees are more important than ever. With the turmoil in the United States and that hatred spilling over into Canada, too, everything we do here takes on tremendous value and symbolic importance. We must show our support for refugees and loving acceptance of immigrants from all parts of the world, regardless of religion. We must affirm our commitment to helping fellow humans in great need and to integrating them warmly into a secure future.

Mennonite Central Committee, the organization through which we’ve worked to resettle the Al Ibrahim family, sent out a message yesterday in the wake of Sunday’s shooting at a Quebec City mosque:

“We lament the senseless shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec. Our thoughts are with the families of those killed and we pray for healing for those injured. During these times we hope and pray that we can come together as communities to build peace.

“Through our Refugee Sponsorship Program, we have helped to welcome many Muslim people to Ontario and we are glad that they are here to help make our communities stronger and vibrant places. We know that diversity contributes to healthy communities.”

Saugeen Shores has done a phenomenal job of this so far. I get emotional just thinking of the past 15 months of generosity, support, and love that’s poured out of our community. Our Syrian family feels happy, at home, and settled. They are thriving, will soon be moving into a home of their own, are enjoying full-time employment and learning English quickly. Best of all, they feel they belong here. When asked if they would consider buying a house in Owen Sound, they were adamantly opposed because they like Port Elgin so much.

Ghaydaa is quite possibly the best cook in Saugeen Shores… Here she’s making pita from scratch in the summer, not something she does on a regular basis (Photo: Elizabeth Davaze)

Thank you for all you’ve done this year, and for your ongoing support for refugee resettlement. Together, in our small towns of Port Elgin and Southampton, we have – and will continue to – make a real difference in the world.

– Katherine Martinko, SSRF coordinator

Come see a powerful documentary about Syrian uprising


A powerful new documentary about the early days of the uprising in Syria will be shown at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, in Southampton, on Saturday Dec. 10, beginning at 7 p.m. The event is in some ways a tribute to the community’s role in sponsoring Syrian refugees. The Saugeen Shores Refugee Group is hosting the event, with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Global Affairs Canada.

The film, Little Gandhi, is an award-winning look at the role of Syrian peace activist Ghiyath Matar, who became an iconic figure in Syria’s freedom movement for giving flowers and water to troops sent to break up non-violent protests in the town of Daraya, in the early days of the uprising. Matar died in the custody of Syrian security forces in 2011.

The 2015 film was funded by IDRC’s Governance and Justice unit as part of a project on transitional justice with the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The film’s director, Sam Kadi, led a production team that took considerable risks to shoot a good part of the film in Syria. Many interviews were set in Daraya, which was still totally under siege by government forces at the time. Local activists were given a crash course in filmmaking via Skype and getting the footage back to the production team took months because of the difficulty in getting it out of the war zone.

It has been nearly one year since the town of Saugeen Shores opened its arms to the Alibrahim family. This 14-member Syrian family escaped the destruction of Aleppo and fled to Lebanon several years before making its way to Canada. Thanks to incredibly generous financial donations and countless hours of hard work by volunteers within the community, the family has settled in well, learning English quickly and figuring out how to navigate a culture that is drastically different from their own.

Said Katherine Martinko, coordinator of the Saugeen Shores Refugee Group:

“Looking at our happily settled newcomers, it can be difficult to remind ourselves that the war in Syria is ongoing. There are still bombs and gunfire in the streets. People, including children, continue to die, whether it’s from the fighting, lack of access to medical care, or not enough food.

“As Canadians and outsiders, living so far from the conflict zone, the war is difficult to comprehend; however, striving for a better understanding of it will ultimately make us better hosts to our own newcomers — those already here, and those yet to come — as well as clarify cross-cultural misunderstandings and, ideally, fill us with greater compassion toward those in great need.”

Immediately after the Dec. 10 screening at the museum, audience members will have the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion involving the film’s director (who will join by Skype) as well as Roula El-Rifai from the IDRC and Marie-Therese Helal from Global Affairs Canada.

The film was recognized by the European Independent Film Festival as the Best Feature Documentary in Arab Filmmaking and has been screened around the world. It is now touring major Canadian centres. But as a nod to the role that small communities like Saugeen Shores played in sponsoring Syrian refugees, a special screening is being mounted here. A second screening in the area will take place on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 11, beginning at 1 p.m. at the Huron County Museum, in Goderich, hosted by Welcome Project Syria.

Admission to both screenings is free, but space is limited, so tickets must be reserved online. Please book through Eventbrite at this link:



Come to an Authentic Syrian Meal


PLEASE NOTE: THE DINNER HAS BEEN SOLD OUT! No more tickets are available at this point.

Ghaydaa Kassem Aboud and her husband Saad Alibrahim are planning to host a community dinner with traditional Syrian cuisine. Ghaydaa hopes to use the proceeds from the dinner to launch a little company selling prepared food, as many people have expressed interest in her cooking. Tickets are limited, so buy now!

When: Sunday, November 13 at 6 pm,
Where: Port Elgin United Church, 840 Bruce Street

Tickets now available at Cathy’s Flowers and Port Elgin United Church office (Mon, Tues, Wed 9-12, Thurs & Friday 9-4. Correct cash only please)

Featuring soup, salad, babbaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, Basmati rice with peas and minced beef, Kibbeh, basbousa and Syrian baklava with walnuts, tea and coffee

$30 adults, $15 Youth 6-13, Free 5 and under

Six months later…

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.

My little guy checks out his baby friend Zeinaa (photo: Katherine Martinko)

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.

Mohamad, Ibrahim, Ahmad, and Abdallah eagerly await their turn on the Python Pit rollercoaster at Storybook Park (photo: Katherine Martinko)
cooking at park
Ibrahim (17), father Saad, and mother Ghaydaa prepare food for the picnic at Storybook Park (photo: Katherine Martinko)
The men took over the barbecues while the women rode roller coasters! (photo: Katherine Martinko)

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.