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.

babies
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.

rollercoaster
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)
cooking
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.

Advertisements

On Easter egg hunts & the Liberal government

An update is long overdue! The Alibrahim family continues to settle in to Canadian life. The kids are doing well in school, picking up lots of English, and parents Saad and Ghaydaa continue to attend English classes in Owen Sound on a regular basis. One of the older kids has landed a summer job (yay!) and there are some other part-time employment opportunities on the horizon. This is an excellent step toward community integration, financial independence, and language improvement.

As you can see from the pictures below, the whole family had a lot of fun at the Easter egg hunt fundraiser for the Liv-A-Little Foundation. It was utterly unlike anything else they’d ever experienced!

Alibrahim easter egg hunt
Fun at the Easter egg hunt (Photo credit: Elizabeth Davaze)

 

Easter egg hunt- Alibrahim family 2
Photo credit: Elizabeth Davaze
Alibrahim kids
Three of the Alibrahim kids enjoy some hot chocolate after the Easter egg hunt (Photo credit: Elizabeth Davaze)
Easter egg hunt- Alibrahim family
Photo credit: Elizabeth Davaze

We’ve had some turnover with the volunteer drivers taking Saad, Ghaydaa, and the three smallest children to Owen Sound. If you are available to drive, even if you have a car that only fits a few people, please let us know. We need an extra for tomorrow (Tuesday, April 26) and Thursdays, starting immediately. You can find our email address in the Contact tab above.

In the meantime, Saad is in the process of getting his driver’s license and hopefully will soon have a vehicle to drive. Until then, we continue to depend on volunteer drivers generously donating their time. Thank you so much to those who continue to do so; it is much appreciated.

When will the next families be coming?

We are on a waitlist for more refugee families, but have been told by Mennonite Central Committee, our Sponsorship Agreement Holder, that it could be months before we’re matched again. Now that the federal government has reached its 25,000 goal, the processing of refugee paperwork is no longer a priority.

This is infuriating. It leaves us – as well as many other Canadian sponsorship groups, some of which have not even received their initial families yet – feeling betrayed. After listening and responding to the Liberal government’s plea for citizens to step forward, fundraise, and welcome refugees into our communities, the immediate closing-of-the-gates and refusal to continue processing at the same speed as before is confusing and frustrating.

Of course there’s a tug-of-war for resources, and the refugee sponsorship program is typically a prolonged process measured in years, but the fact that our community (along with many others) responded specifically to the government’s request for immediate action makes me think that the government should respond accordingly.

Maclean’s describes the situation as such: “The Trudeau government moved the bureaucratic equivalent of heaven and earth to fulfill an epic campaign promise. Yet it now appears that as soon as it reached its goal, it sent the civil servants home and locked the doors. Everyone else still waiting in the queue? Get back in line, and brace yourselves for a much longer wait.”

One sponsorship group from Halifax has been told their Syrian family will take another 8 months to process in Turkey. Spokeswoman Renee Field told Maclean’s, “It’s a little bit of a slap in the face… The government asked us to rally. We rallied, we raised money, and then they shut us down. It is not acceptable.”

We are fortunate to have received our first family when we did, but it doesn’t make it any easier to wait for the next two that we hope to bring to Saugeen Shores. We have expanded our criteria to include non-Syrians, although we will still be able to reject potential matches if they don’t seem like a good fit for the community.

For those of you who donated specifically for these additional families, the funds will be held indefinitely by Mennonite Central Committee and will be available for our use once the matches are made. Those families will come; it’s just a question of when.

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.

skating1
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.

IMG_5111
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…

macgregor1
A warm campfire on a chilly March day was a great ending to March Break.

macgregor2

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.

community potluck
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.

IMG_4998
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.
IMG_4984
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!
IMG_4992
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.

IMG_4981

Welcome to Saugeen Shores!

hotel pickup

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.

kids playing with new toys
Excited children exploring their new home

little girl with books

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.

baby snuggles
A snuggle with the littlest family member

Thanks for all your support so far.

The view from mid-January

what-have-canadas-politicians-promised-to-do-for-syrian-refugees-body-image-1442260752-size_1000

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!