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Canadian churches embrace Syrian refugees

Two congregations adopt a family displaced by a civil war that has claimed half a million lives.

BEAMSVILLE, Ontario — As war ravaged their homeland, a Syrian family of eight fled for their lives.

The Muslim father, mother and six children — among 4 million Syrians who have escaped to neighboring countries — ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

There, they lived in a barn for four years.

Conditions became so dire that the family — including a daughter with cerebral palsy — contemplated returning home, despite the 5-year-old civil war that has claimed an estimated 470,000 lives.

“Inhumane” is the single word that an Arabic interpreter used to translate the Syrians’ lengthy description of the camp.

Enter two Churches of Christ south of Toronto — their hearts touched by the plight of strangers abroad and resolved to show the love of Jesus to a suffering family.

“When I saw the images on TV, I thought, ‘Where would we go? Who would accept us?’” said Linda Minter, a member of the Tintern Church of Christ in Vineland, Ontario, which joined with the nearby Beamsville Church of Christ to sponsor the family’s resettlement to Canada.

Some of the Canadian church members who worked to sponsor a Syrian refugee family include, front row from left, Linda Smith, Marcia Cramp and Jim Dickie. In the back row are Jori Warren, Earl Warren, Linda Minter, Bruce Minter, Noel Walker and Julie Walker. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Fast-forward to a recent Sunday night: A “meet and greet” event brought together the Syrian refugees — the mother and daughters wearing traditional Muslim hijabs — and their Christian supporters.

Church members prepared Syrian dishes such as baklava and showered the family with gifts that included handmade quilts.

“The 8-year-old boy was running around with the other boys after a while,” minister Noel Walker said. “The 4-year-old girl was playing with some girls that came to say hi.

Read “Syrian refugees find ‘second family’ in Canadian churches,” our 2017 update on Moamar and Samia Faham Katan and their six children. “It was such an amazing night, and it galvanized our affections for them,” Walker added. “Now, they are a part of our family, and we are a part of theirs.”

Belal el Hassan, a 49-year-old Canadian citizen who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, helped translate for the family and shared details about their journey.

“Thank you for saving their lives,” el Hassan, who is Muslim, said he told the church. “Because definitely, who knows what would have happened if they would have gone back into Syria again?”

Sponsorship rules preclude the church members from identifying the Syrian family or asking them to submit to media interviews or photographs.

But el Hassan spoke on their behalf.

“I would like to emphasize how much the Syrian family appreciates and thanks the Church of Christ for bringing them over, and they will never forget that favor to them,” he told The Christian Chronicle.  CANADA WELCOMES 25,000 SYRIANS

Concerns over potential terrorists posing as refugees to infiltrate borders have made headlines in the United States, parts of Europe and even here in Canada.

However, a majority of Canadians supported new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to welcome more than 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, according to national polls.

Those refugees included the family embraced by the Tintern and Beamsville churches.

“Canada is doing the right thing by providing refuge for those so desperately seeking safety,” Trudeau said after personally greeting a planeload of weary Syrians at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

A nation of 35 million people, Canada has roughly 150 Churches of Christ. Combined membership totals less than 7,000.

Although small in number relative to the overall population, many of those Christians are mobilizing to help Syrian refugees.

In the historically French Catholic prairie town of Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, the Church of Christ bought 14 microwave ovens to benefit refugees in the city of Moose Jaw.

Read articles from the Chronicle’s 2009 series on Canadian churches.

 

“We will see what other ways we may be able to assist as time goes on,” said Lorna Bell, wife of Gravelbourg church elder Gerry Bell.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, South Burnaby Church of Christ members Gumaiz Mahmoud and his wife, Amal Kago — themselves refugees of war-torn Sudan — work with a nonprofit immigrant resettlement agency.

“They’re very heavily involved … helping the large number of refugees here in Vancouver to find food and housing,” South Burnaby minister Kirk Ruch said.

For years, volunteers from the Stoney Creek Church of Christ in Hamilton, Ontario, have prepared meals for the Micah House, which provides shelter for people seeking asylum from danger, terror and persecution.

Now the congregation is cooperating with two neighboring churches in hopes of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, minister Brent Olson said.

“In the Bible, where social justice comes up, it’s about taking care of widows, orphans and the strangers in your midst,” Olson said.

While most Stoney Creek members believe the government is taking proper precautions to screen out potential terrorists, a few have voiced fears.

“We had one family that was really concerned with it and chose to go (to church) somewhere else,” Olson said.
TODDLER’S DEATH STIRS ACTION

Back in September, a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi drowned after a 15-foot boat ferrying him to a Greek island capsized.

Pictures of the toddler’s lifeless body on a beach horrified millions around the globe and spurred the Tintern and Beamsville churches to act.

“As a mother, I just couldn’t imagine it,” church member Jori Warren said. “You don’t just put your kids in a boat with their life on the line if their life wasn’t already in jeopardy.”

Rather than undergo a lengthy paperwork process, the churches partnered with the Mennonite Central Committee — a refugee placement organization already recognized by the Canadian government.

Led by Tintern deacon Roger Perry, a committee of 24 men and women formed to tackle the family’s needs — from housing to medical care to transportation to schools for the children and English language classes for the parents.

Minister Noel Walker reads handwritten thoughts from church member Judy Dickie about the blessings that have resulted from the sponsorship of a Syrian refugee family. “Prayers were answered immediately from the adjustment the first day to the present,” Dickie wrote. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

The Mennonite Central Committee provided helpful advice on moving forward, church member Marcia Cramp said.

“That was everything from being a blessing to watching out for burnout because it really is time consuming,” Cramp said. “(They said), ‘It’s going to take a lot, so make sure you have lots of people involved to support you through that process of getting people acclimated to a new Canadian culture.’”

By sponsoring the family, the churches agreed to support them financially for at least a year. Members’ contributions and pledges exceeded $40,000 Canadian — nearly double the amount needed to fulfill that commitment.

“We raised enough that we really can sponsor two families,” Cramp said. “But we chose to start with one, do it well and learn from it.”

A 13-year-old Syrian girl holds her younger brother at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Their family fled the civil war a year ago. (PHOTO BY NICHOLAS RALPH, WORLD VISION)

Brian Dyck coordinates the Mennonite Central Committee’s national migration and resettlement program in Canada.

Last year, that Mennonite program brought 1,300 refugees to America’s northern neighbor — two-thirds of them Syrians.

Brian Dyck“The first job is getting people here,” said Dyck, who is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “But the big job after that is making sure that they have housing, that they can learn English and French … and that they have friends here.

“And that’s the strength of our private sponsorship program,” he added. “It not only helps people find a job and a home and things like that; it builds a community around them.”

On a recent weekday, Cramp went to the two-story townhouse that the churches rented for the Syrian family.

The Christian volunteer was taking the mother and children to see a pediatrician, but she arrived early to let them know a local IKEA store wanted to supply items for their home.

“The mother began to cry, which of course made me cry,” Cramp said. “She said, ‘Love, love, love.’ So we hugged, and I said back, ‘Yes, love, love, love. The church loves you, and Canada loves you, and we are so happy to help.’”

The church members hope to introduce the family to the Gospel of Jesus.

For now, they’re content to build the relationship slowly and learn more about the Syrians’ own faith.

“It’s been a really interesting journey,” Cramp said. “If I was really open and honest … I was probably quite racist and biased against Muslim people. They would not have been people (to whom) I would have gravitated to seek out a relationship.

“And it’s just been such an eye-opener for me to engage with a family that is loving and humorous and caring and empathetic in the same way that all of us are,” she added.

Walker, the minister, expressed similar sentiments.

“My eyes have been totally changed toward the Muslim community,” he said. “They were caricatures of human beings before.”

But now, when he conjures images of Muslims, Walker pictures a loving father and mother who shuttled their son and five daughters away from bombs — and barely can contain their delight at a fresh start in a safe place.

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