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Settling a Syrian refugee family was a lesson in humility, humanity and ingenuity


Laying out the welcome mat

Settling a Syrian refugee family was a lesson in humility, humanity and seat-of-our-pants ingenuity, Gill Walker writes

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When people ask me how the Syrian family is doing I am not quite sure what to say.

Most people are simply curious. Many want to help. When I first conceived the idea to sponsor a family after reading an article in the newspaper in 2015, my initial conundrum was who to ask. You need five people. I was concerned about making my friends and family uncomfortable by asking. I almost gave up, the discomfort of asking was so acute. A few politely declined, while others embraced the idea. A group of different circles of friends formed: a lawyer, teacher, dentist, investment advisor, fundraiser, accountant, school principal and myself, an occupational therapist.

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Eight months have passed since our family arrived. How are they doing? In all truthfulness, I am not exactly sure. The father is enrolled in English classes and has started a part-time job stocking shelves at a grocery store. Their seven-month-old baby, Maram, is healthy and her brother Ayman and sister Midha attend Strong Start, a free play-based early learning program. What I am sure of is that I have changed since meeting them.

I will never forget greeting the family at the airport. I was already crying in the car on the way there. I had lost my wallet and I was afraid that I would be trapped in the airport parking lot not able to buy a ticket to exit, but of course, it was more than that. The idea of a family signing some papers, boarding an airplane and being transported to the other side of the world with nothing and no one but strangers to greet them is overwhelming. I saw airports differently that day. Until then, I had associated them with holidays, adventure and romantic reunions.

It had been an exciting week leading up to that airport meeting. I was at work when I learned of the family's arrival. The e-mail read "due to the mother's pregnancy, the likely arrival date is May 19th." I turned to my colleague, Andrea, who is more on top of things such as dates, and asked, "When is May 19th?" "Next Thursday," she answered.

And so began a particularly important weekend of apartment searching in Vancouver, one of the world's most unaffordable cities.

I decided to call my sister for advice. "Do your hair and wear something nice," she instructed. We only had a short chat, but while talking with her, I felt the odds against me settle in with a thud. It was Sunday, and I had three appointments to see three basement suites. I brushed my hair, dressed up and went into work to prepare a cover letter and attached my business card. I printed off a page about the sponsorship program and put everything into three blue folders.

Dinner-plate eyes looked back at me when I told one landlord that I was part of a refugee-sponsorship group and was looking for housing for a family of four, soon to be five. I could sympathize. Those eyes wanted to help but didn't know what to say. Too small was the next response. The third apartment was full of prospective tenants and so the landlord didn't have time to chat. I gave each landlord one of my blue folders.

When Ravinder called me that evening from the suite that had been so full of other prospective tenants, I could hardly believe it. I was sitting with three members of our sponsorship group and we were making various temporary housing arrangements.

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"I would like to offer our basement suite to your Syrian family," she said. Ravinder immigrated from India as a four year old and was co-ordinating the rental on behalf of her mother who lived upstairs.

We had three days to furnish the apartment. When we couldn't find a truck at the last minute to move a donated bed from Surrey to South Vancouver, one of our group who works at a barn transported the bed in a horse trailer. What had seemed an impossible task, finding and furnishing a reasonably priced apartment for a large family in one week in one of the country's hottest real estate markets, had happened.

The rental agreement was eventually signed and translated into Hindi, English and Arabic, with the help of an Arabic speaking settlement worker, and Ravinder. When the deal was signed, Ravinder's mother, a woman in her 80s, smiled at the Syrian father and suggested he also try to learn Hindi now that he was in Vancouver. He smiled back and said he would focus on English first.

A member of our sponsorship group had a conversation recently with another hockey mom at the rink. The mom, an immigrant from the Ukraine, told her "I just want to thank you for being a sponsor. Did you know that Canada is the only country in the world which allows citizens to sponsor refugees and I am so happy you are doing this." I realize now how often I have taken Canada for granted.

And so, when I get asked how the Syrian family is doing, I am sometimes overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed by the experiences I have had over the past year, by the caring of our sponsorship group, by the struggles of our family and, more recently as I watch the political events of this year unfold, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being born in Canada and for the opportunity to participate in refugee sponsorship.

Gill Walker lives in Vancouver.

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