Religious differences quickly set aside as Oakville and Mississauga groups welcome Syrian refugees from Damascus.
In the end, their religious differences didn’t matter a bit.
As the Syrian refugee crisis escalated, members of Maple Grove United Church and Shaarei Beth-El Synagogue in Oakville and Mississauga’s Islamic Society of North America mosque joined forces in March 2015 to do what they could to help.
Rabbi Stephen Wise says he encountered some early resistance from a few of his congregants who questioned why they were helping a Muslim family and wondered if Muslims would sponsor a Jewish family if the situation was reversed.
“But all the questions were answered when the family came to Canada and to the synagogue and spoke with our congregants. The oldest son wrote a speech in English. The mother brought her own five-layer cake,” Wise recalled of the arrival of the Al Balkhi family — a couple and their five children — originally from Damascus who came to Canada in December after three years in Jordan.
“The family was just overwhelmed with gratitude. They couldn’t believe they were in a Jewish synagogue and its members cared enough to raise money to bring them here and welcome them to their place of worship.”
Another great moment came, Wise said, when the sponsorship group found a townhouse in Mississauga for the family and volunteers loaded a big truck to move the donated furniture to their new home.
“The kids were so excited to have their own rooms. They were wowed, saying this is my desk, this is my shelf, this is my bed. They set up their own furniture. This is their house,” he said. “When we were done, we ordered some pizza. We shared pizzas and talked about how special this moment was.”
There have also been some difficult moments, however.
It took the group’s volunteers several months to secure the townhouse for the family after being turned away by landlord after landlord who refused to rent to refugees.
There was a time when a volunteer escorted one of the older children to a job interview as a security guard only to be met with scorn from the employer who asked why an immigrant job-seeker had to be accompanied by a white Canadian man for something so simple.
As the private sponsorship group’s one-year financial assistance is coming to an end next month, Dr. Aliya Khan of Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need, which inspired the religious groups to come together, said the community is concerned about the looming “Month 13” when the Al Balkhi family is expected to make it on their own financially.
“We have that worry. Rents have to be paid monthly. We are planning for it. The two older boys are working and the parents are taking English classes. The mom is a very good cook and we are helping her to provide catering for our congregations,” said Khan.
“But these are hard working, honest people. They want to be independent and contribute to society. When you have those qualities, it becomes easy.”
Asyad Al Balkhi, the eldest son, said the family is grateful for the support from the group.
“We are all doing good. My siblings are in school. My other brother works in sales administration. My father is looking for a job. Everybody is happy,” said the 20-year-old, who hopes to one day go to university to study business and commerce.
Khan said what has been the most gratifying for her over the past year is to see the smiles and joy on the Al Balkhi children’s faces.
“If we can save one life by opening our door and giving them a bright future as opposed to death and destruction, it is all worth it,” she noted.
Through other partnerships, Khan’s own group has also brought three other refugee families — one each from Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon — to Canada in the past year, with two other families of five still waiting in Jordan.
“I will definitely do it again. It’s such a fulfilling experience to see all these different faith groups coming together. We all worship the same God, love and respect,” she said.