When the pictures of the young boy whose drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach suddenly raised international awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis, it sparked our empathy as well. My wife Hengameh (May) and her family were from Iran, so she knew first hand how difficult life was in some countries. She attended the vigil at the Alberta Legislature on September 8, 2015 and subsequently we both attended an information session held at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
We were not part of a group, and therefore could not afford to sponsor a family, but the Mennonite Central Committee put us in touch with a Syrian Kurdish family (wife, husband and young son) already here who were trying to help the wife’s brother come to Canada. They had immigrated as government sponsored refugees through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees earlier in the year.
Their story is similar to many of the refugees. Before the civil war began in 2011 they lived a good life, had jobs and were paying for a home. Aleppo, where they lived, was a sophisticated, modern city with a long history and many amenities. In 2012 that all changed. The civil war came to Aleppo. The building beside their home was shelled and collapsed. Their own home was damaged. Rebel groups started to move into the city and loot for supplies. The couple had just had a son, and he was two months old when they decided to flee. Luckily for them, the husband had family in Turkey, so they were able to legally cross the Turkish border and stay with them while they applied for refugee status.
They came to Canada in the spring of 2015 and found an apartment on the south side of Edmonton. They did not speak English, had little money, and were distant from the Kurdish community here. When we met them in October of 2015 the husband was taking English classes every day, while the wife stayed home with their young son. May arranged appointments at the EMCN for both of them, one with an Arab-speaking interpreter who helped the wife fill out the immigration application form for her brother, one with an EMCN worker who helped the husband fill out his resume in English. Through our contacts with a grocery that supplied Iranian food, May was able to help the husband get a job in a new restaurant just opening. Now he goes to English classes in the mornings and works, and the wife is starting English classes as well.
It really does take a coordinated effort, and we have been helped by many people, including a good friend at the EMCN and a Kurdish community broker who met with us and the family to interpret. We had the Kurdish family to our home for Christmas, and other good friends of ours went with their family to purchase gifts for the newcomers. It was a joyful time watching the young boy play with toys all night long.
Currently the brother who we are trying to help is a refugee himself, a Syrian Kurd living in Turkey, with violence and poverty around him. More on him and his story in upcoming posts.