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Kilmeny Heron (R) and Leslie Soopalu of Valley Welcome prepares the house for the arrival of a Syrian refugee family Dec. 18, 2015 in Eganville, Ontario. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Kilmeny Heron (R) and Leslie Soopalu of Valley Welcome prepares the house for the arrival of a Syrian refugee family Dec. 18, 2015 in Eganville, Ontario. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

refugees

Syrians are only the latest refugees welcomed to the Ottawa Valley Add to ...

Kate Mooney is just headed out the door.

She is carrying an envelope stuffed with more than $1,000 in cheques and cash and pledges – enough to bring the grand total to more than $42,000.

Her group, Project Welcome, operates out of Pembroke and is working to bring a Syrian refugee family of four to the Ottawa Valley. Another group calling itself Valley Welcome and centred in the small towns of Eganville and Killaloe is awaiting the arrival of an extended family of nine from Syria. Valley Welcome has raised nearly $70,000, much of it in two-dollars-a-week-for-a-year pledges, and already has a house selected, cleaned and in the process of being furnished.

It is an image guaranteed to produce a smile. The Ottawa Valley is as uniquely Canadian as a Bob and Doug McKenzie skit, a thinly populated world of deep snow, unique speech, huntin’ and fishin’, hardscrabble-to-impossible farmland, spectacular Canadian Shield scenery and people so deeply conservative that they sent a Canadian Alliance candidate to Parliament 15 years ago and have re-elected Cheryl Gallant, now a Conservative, five times since.

“We think we’re such a plaid-jacketed community,” Ms. Mooney laughs. “But maybe we’re not.”

Despite Ms. Gallant’s stated cautions – in a recent newsletter to constituents, she refers to the proximity of CFB Petawawa and says, “Our soldiers should not have to worry about a homegrown attack against loved ones in Canada while serving their country abroad” – the outpouring of support for refugee families has been impressive.

The money began streaming in and volunteers signed up by the dozens. The little Ottawa Valley Islamic Centre in the town of Deep River has arranged for translations of the welcome booklet and is offering two Arabic-speaking families to help with the transition.

“People came out of the woodwork,” says Kilmeny Heron, one of the founders of Valley Welcome. “People I didn’t think would be supportive were completely supportive.”

Ms. Mooney says the impetus for Project Welcome came out of the emotional reaction to that dramatic photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach – a photo that she herself has somehow managed to avoid seeing, convinced that it would simply overwhelm her.

“People in the valley have the ability to identify with those struggling,” she says.

The valley, in fact, has a long history of offering refuge to all sorts of humanity. Al Capone, local legend has it, hid out in a log cabin near Quadeville when the heat got too intense in Prohibition-era Chicago. In recent years, Mennonite families fleeing soaring land prices in Southwestern Ontario have moved into the valley, magically transforming run-down farms and abandoned fields into bountiful market gardens without the need of electricity or machinery.

The Irish fleeing famine in the early 1800s found land and work in the valley – the little village of Douglas even has as its motto “Home of the Leprechauns.”

Kashubians and Poles came to the valley in the 1850s and 1860s, fleeing years of oppression by Russians and Prussians. From failed uprisings they came to a land that was cold and, in places, largely unwelcoming. They were called “Bohunks” and, at one point, there was even a movement to kick them out of Canada, a leading religious leader of the day calling them “dirty, stupid, reeking-of-garlic, undesirable Continental Europeans.”

But not in the Ottawa Valley. At the highest point of land not far from the Bonnechere and Madawaska rivers, the Kashubians and Poles found land that reminded them of home and here they built a village, Wilno, with a magnificent Catholic church they dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland. When John Paul II became the first pope to visit Canada in 1984, he pronounced that “Canada has become a second homeland” to Poles and insisted on visiting Wilno, which calls itself “Canada’s First Polish Settlement.”

A hundred years later, new refugees arrived in the valley, only this time from the United States. They were draft dodgers fleeing the prospects of being sent to Vietnam and hippies chasing back-to-the-land dreams. Unwelcome in some parts, they were embraced by the valley and have contributed hugely to the arts and culture of the area.

“The people here were so welcoming,” says Ish Theilheimer, who came from New York City. “Particularly the merchants. We had money from mommy and daddy and no one else had money.”

He figures roughly 300 young Americans found their way to the Killaloe area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were well-educated and creative. A musician himself, he helped found the Stone Fence Theatre that has dramatized much of the area’s history, including the Polish resettlements.

Mr. Theilheimer says his reading of the history of the Ottawa Valley shows that compromise and acceptance have played a large role. The Protestants and Catholics that once threw stones at each other across the Bonnechere River in Eganville are today contented neighbours. The Poles soon became the establishment, with the provincial seat held today by John Yakabuski, just as it once was for many years by his father, Paul.

The Syrians, Mr. Theilheimer believes, will be warmly welcomed by those already lined up to contribute and volunteer. That is surely a given. In the longer term, however, he says that “it all depends what happens. I suspect they’ll do pretty well here, but if there’s any kind of terrorist strike in Canada, who knows what the reaction will be.”

No one can possibly know the future. Who would have thought that the children of those who found refuge in the Ottawa Valley in the 1960s would be marrying into families of those who found refuge here in the 1860s?

But that is exactly what has happened.

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