On keeping 12 kids entertained during the winter

The Alibrahim family has been in Port Elgin for nearly two months now. It’s hard to believe how quickly the time has flown, and yet it also seems like they’ve been here forever.

The kids are doing great in school and the parents are thriving in English classes in Owen Sound. Saad goes five days a week, while Ghaydaa goes three times, due to childcare limitations. The three littlest ones accompany their parents to Owen Sound, with the baby staying in class while the 3-year-old and 4-year-old attend the YMCA daycare.

The parents are always eager to practice new vocabulary words and phrases. Ghaydaa, in particular, is excited to run through her English grocery words, which she adorably pulls out of nowhere in the middle of conversations. “Chicken! Beef! Fridge! Chair! Lamb! Cheese!” Saad and 18-year-old daughter, Aisha, are now able to carry on conversations and facilitate translation, which is amazing, since that was not possible when they first arrived.

Our core group, together with many generous volunteers, has been working hard to teach the family how to enjoy the Canadian winter. The kids love skating and have become very good at it in a short period of time. Now their favourite thing to do is attend the sponsored skates at the Plex, where they whiz around the ice for an hour and a half.

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17-year-old Ibrahim pushes his 5-year-old brother Hassan around the rink

Two weeks ago, just before the snow melted, we squeezed in a glorious afternoon of sledding at Eastwood Park. It was a real highlight, as shrieks of joy and disbelief at the speed they were able to reach on a sled filled the air for several hours. The entire family was welcomed back to a nearby home for hot chocolate, cookies, and games afterward.

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Katherine, Mariam, and Aisha head down the slope on a toboggan, while Saad looks on skeptically!

It’s been interesting trying to keep 12 kids occupied during March Break, especially with such poor weather. (I used to think keeping three busy was a challenge, but now I realize it’s nothing compared to a dozen!) We’ve done lots of skating, and the older boys have attended the sponsored swims at the nearby pool.

On Friday we went to MacGregor Point Provincial Park for a campfire cookout with beef hotdogs and marshmallows. We adults hovered around the fire, trying to warm up in the chilly air, while the kids raced around the forest, visited the beach, played football and badminton. The family enjoyed it greatly, although they were cold after an hour and a half and told me they’d love to try it again in the summer when it’s warm. We keep promising it will warm up, but I’m not sure they believe us…

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A warm campfire on a chilly March day was a great ending to March Break.

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The kids are supposed to receive a shipment of bicycles from the Tiverton Lions Club this weekend, which will give them even more freedom to explore the town.

At the end of February, Penny Inkster and members of the United Church in Port Elgin organized a potluck dinner to introduce the Alibrahims to all the volunteers who are involved in their resettlement. It was so much fun that we’ve decided to have community dinners on a regular basis; the next one will be on March 31 – although it is by invitation only.

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Potluck dinner at the United Church. It was an impressive array of food!

Every week Canadian life gets easier for them, as they understand more of how it works – and especially now that they get a weekly delivery of 35 bags of pita bread right to their front door! Ghaydaa recently told me and Mariam that she feels more at home here than she ever did in Lebanon. Her words made us feel happy, since that sense of belonging is precisely what we hope for her (and the rest of the family) to feel while living in this community.

Thank you for the ongoing support from all. It is much appreciated.

One week of Canadian life!

It’s been exactly one week since we picked up our newcomers at a hotel near the airport in Toronto. What a week it’s been! We’ve registered kids for school, completed all medical appointments, filled out mountains of paperwork, shopped for groceries (including halal meat and loads of flatbreads), taken the family around town, to the lake, and skating at the arena. We’ve shared countless cups of sweet black tea and delicious meals around a very large table with many little faces.

The family is settling in, slowly but surely, and starting to understand more about how life works in Ontario. It’s a steep learning curve for all, but with each day it gets easier. I’d like to share a few photos of what we’ve been up to during the past week.

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First trip down to the lake. They were very impressed by how huge it is, and said they can’t wait to see it during summer. (3 kids were sleeping in the car when this picture was taken.) Our translator Mariam Joudeh (on the far left) has been doing a stellar job.
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Visit to the elementary school, where 7 kids will start classes next week. They were excited to meet their teachers. A huge thank you to Saugeen Central for all they’ve done to prepare, including many signs written in Arabic!
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Learning all about bus safety, after a fabulous tour of Saugeen Central. They’re all ready for Monday morning!

Early morning skating

We went skating early this morning in Southampton. We rounded up several baskets full of donated ice skates and helmets, asked volunteers to come give us a hand, and hit the ice for an hour. Our newcomers did amazingly well!

Some of the kids, especially the younger ones, caught on surprisingly fast, while some of the older ones were reluctant to try. There was much laughter had by all.

We’re looking forward to having many more Canadian experiences together. The family seems to be adapting well and is very eager and willing to learn about life here in Saugeen Shores. Thanks to everyone for the help and support.

Here are some of the kids admiring the hockey players after our time was up.

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Welcome to Saugeen Shores!

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I am overjoyed to announce that our newcomers have arrived. They are now settled, safe and sound, in their new home. It’s been a whirlwind weekend for everyone, full of new words and names, struggled conversations that are a mix of English and Arabic, explanations about how things work, the triple cheek-kisses we’ve quickly learned how to do, many smiles and much laughter at our inability to communicate whenever Mariam the translator steps out of the room.

They are lovely people. The children can’t wait to start school as soon as possible, and the parents are eager to start English classes. They’ve had a long, hard journey, and several years of uncertainty since being forced to leave their home in Aleppo, Syria, so it is both exciting and exhausting to start yet again.

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Excited children exploring their new home

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We have insisted on their need for privacy, but don’t let that get in the way of welcoming them. If you see them, please say hello, tell them how happy you are to have them here, extend an offer of hospitality, a hug, handshake or kiss. They are eager to meet people, and were visibly amazed to learn that the community’s donations are the reason they’re here.

We all have a steep learning curve ahead. This is when the real work starts, and no doubt we’ll be calling on many of you who have offered assistance. Right now, the priority is to get the kids enrolled in school, catch up on doctor and dentist appointments, orient them in the town, start English classes, and start discussing employment options.

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A snuggle with the littlest family member

Thanks for all your support so far.

The view from mid-January

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Many people have been asking about the family’s arrival. The short answer is, “I don’t know when they’re coming!” We’re still waiting, but the good news is that we’ve been given their names, which is usually a sign that they are close to travelling.

The house has been fully furnished and is awaiting their arrival. There is nothing else we need, thanks to the outpouring of generous donations from members of this community. We’ve also received mountains of clothes, thanks to the Pass It On Café at the Missionary Church, which will be sorted shortly. Some items will be set aside for the family, while the rest will go into the Café for the family to choose, based on size and style preferences. The church has asked that no more items be donated.

We’ve learned that the family has an additional baby, so now there are 12 children with their 2 parents. The school-aged children will attend either Saugeen Central or St. Joseph’s school in Port Elgin; we leave the decision up to the parents.

Once the family gets here, no doubt there will be a flurry of excitement, but it’s important to give them the space and privacy that they need to adjust to a radically new life. I’ve been urged by Mennonite Central Committee to limit the number of people with whom they have contact, particularly in the initial weeks, in order not to overwhelm them and to help build trusting relationships with the core group members. We have no idea what they’ve been through prior to arriving, which is why it’s important to ease them into this new life.

We ask the community to respect that time and not show up excitedly to welcome the newcomers. There will be plenty of time to do so!

In the meantime, we continue to think about the future. We have enough funds to sponsor and resettle a second family, once the first has been settled. The more money we raise, the more newcomers we can bring, so if you are part of an organization that would like to hold a fundraiser on our behalf, please feel free to do so. We hope to organize some additional fundraisers in the near future. You can donate online here.

To all the many people who have inquired about volunteering:

At this point, we’re all just waiting! As tasks become apparent, after the family’s arrival, we will certainly reach out to the public for broader support. Also, we will need to form a second core group to spearhead the sponsorship of the second family, so let me know if you’re interested in becoming more committed to the cause.

Thank you, and stay tuned for updates!

Preparing the House

The house is almost ready for the family to arrive. There are just a few outstanding items, so please let us know if you can help with any of the following: 2 bunk beds with mattresses, 1 extra single bed mattress, and a snow blower. Comment here or email saugeen.refugeefund@gmail.com.

We’re still waiting. As I wrote recently, the family has passed their interview and we’re now waiting for the results of the security screening and medical checks. Fingers crossed that they’ll be here soon in January!

 

A Holiday Update

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Back when we started this refugee sponsorship process, I had hoped so much that the family would be here in time for Christmas. Unfortunately those hopes have been dashed, and we know for certain that the family won’t be here before the end of 2015.

The good news, though, is that the family have passed their interview. We’ve learned that they have a new baby, born this past October, so now there will be 12 children (spanning 2 months to 18 years) coming with their 2 parents. Now we’re just waiting for the results of the security screenings and physical examinations.

The house is nearly ready for them. Mariam and her husband have been working very hard to organize the renovations and manage all the furniture donations we’ve received. Thank you to the many, many people who stepped forward to offer items for the home. We’ve been offered far more than we actually need, and urge people to consider donating to other refugee sponsorship groups in the region that may not have been so lucky with donations.

If you have clothing, shoes, or boots to donate, please take them to the Pass It On Café, run by the Missionary Church on Green Street in Port Elgin, open Sun-Thurs, 9-12. The Pass It On Café is a thrift store of sorts where everything is free. The staff have kindly offered to collect and sort donations on our behalf, and the family will go there to select clothing once they arrive. It also makes any extra donations available to the public and other families in need.

I’ve received several requests from people wanting to get involved with volunteering. At this point, we’re not able to accommodate everyone’s desire to be part of the process. Under Canadian law, the family members are considered ‘vulnerable people,’ which means that anyone who has contact with them initially must have background checks conducted by a third-party organization.

I’ve also been advised by Mennonite Central Committee to limit the number of people interacting with the family for the first while, in order to build better, more trusting relationships. I’m sorry to disappoint any prospective volunteers, but please remember that we plan to bring a second family and will need help for that. Do let us know, however, if you have a highly specialized skill that you think could be of service.

You can help by helping us fundraise!!! There have been some wonderful donations made by groups in the community who have organized their own fundraisers on our behalf. That’s a great way to stay involved and help the process along – because, without the money, it’s impossible to do anything. So far we have enough money for a second family later in 2016, but would love to bring a third one, too.

If you feel so inclined, please make a donation online and urge your family and friends to do so, as well: https://donate.mcccanada.ca/registry/saugeen-shores-refugee-fund

Merry Christmas to all!