How One Canadian Congregation is Making a Difference in the Lives of Syrian Refugees

February 9, 2017Sara B. Charney

During the past year, the government of Canada admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees and another 11,000 have been arriving as part of private sponsorship opportunities. Upon the arrival of the Syrian refugees, they immediately receive permanent resident status which means they have access to health care, schools, jobs, in other words, a full and, hopefully, productive new life.

In late 2015 and early 2016, members of the Holy Blossom Temple community in Toronto raised funds to sponsor two Syrian families. A core group of volunteers assembled to take on various roles to coordinate the arrival and settlement of the families. We also agreed to take on the practicalities of settling another couple who had had funds raised by a separate group. All of these people have a strong connection to a local family already established here.

The first family arrived in Toronto on Monday September 19th. This family consists of a mother, a father and three boys all under the age of 10. They arrived with their great aunt and great uncle and the latter two are now living with their son and his family, all local residents. Several members of Holy Blossom met them at the airport and drove them to their new homes. One volunteer summarized the experience as: “emotional, happy, tearful and moving.”

Our volunteers quickly moved into action helping arrange for grocery shopping, language testing for the adults, immunizations and schooling for the children, setting up bank accounts and getting phones, arranging for SIN (Social Insurance Number) cards, a family physician, various dentists, household furnishings, and the list goes on.

Many volunteers have been so helpful and giving of their time to an even wider community. For example, relatives of our sponsored family who had been privately sponsored by other groups, but who had not received the same emotional support and useful assistance regarding even a home to live in, expressed a desire for our volunteers to help out with many of the day-to-day tasks that we undertook for our sponsored family. We have willingly stepped up to the plate and have also devoted ourselves to many of their needs, including locating housing for a family of six (shout out to my sons Adam and Andrew who made this happen!).

Our outreach and support work with the newcomers to Canada is not only about providing a warm welcome, but also about providing an avenue for our members and the larger community to assist. In the past year, over 180 people have contributed financially and/or of their time.

Holy Blossom’s involvement with refugee resettlement has been positive for the families we are assisting, our members who are so eager to give of themselves, as well as our larger Toronto community who have joined us for this effort.

As the Torah portion Chayei Sarah reminds us, how better can we better show our children, our local community, our country and the refugees themselves the importance of welcoming the stranger, than really doing it ourselves?

Many of us have heard personal stories of extreme hardships from our recent arrivals. Their journeys have been lengthy, some have witnessed the horrors of war in Aleppo, others have experienced racism for years while living outside of Syria in camps.

As our friendships with our Syrian families evolve, we have also shared personal stories of our family histories. In my case, this lead to an interesting discussion about my families’ roots in Eastern Europe. I explained that had my grandparents not left Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and Austria, they most certainly would have perished in the Holocaust and I would not be alive today, to which my new friend exclaimed, yes, and had we not escaped, our children would not be here either.

One person shared with me how his biases toward others have completely changed since arriving in Canada. To me, that is an amazing success story as he and his numerous family members who continue to arrive will quickly learn to share our values and be more willing to forego negative stereotypes.

Our second family that we are officially sponsoring arrived on November 24th and I participated in the airport welcome. They are the parents of the mother who arrived in September. As we were enjoying delicacies and tea at home, I looked around the room and saw 17 family members who had arrived in Toronto since June of this year. That really choked me up, and everyone was murmuring that this was a dream they never could have imagined coming true a year ago.

The family members regularly tell us how happy they are to be in Canada and that they are so grateful for everything we have done for them. They tell us we are their family now. I am certain that there are many similar stories across Canada from various churches, neighbourhood groups and other synagogues who have devoted their time and energy and raised the necessary funds to be a part of this welcoming effort.

Holy Blossom Temple will be sponsoring a third Syrian family, and we are also now awaiting the arrival of two Yazidi families to welcome and settle into life in Canada.

In the coming months, we will advise our friends in the United States how they can participate in this mitzvah of welcoming the stranger - and receive tax receipts. The Religious Action Center is currently working on providing opportunities for U.S. congregations to get involved in this important work. In the meantime, you can support organizations like HIAS and IsraAid who are providing immediate assistance to refugees who have not yet been resettled.

Sara Charney is a past president of the sisterhood at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Ontario.

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