First of three sponsored refugee families arrive in Kitchener-Waterloo

Graphic by Fani Hsieh

Graphic by Fani Hsieh

On January 15, after months of preparation, Wilfrid Laurier University welcomed a sponsored Syrian refugee family.

They mark the first of three families to arrive in Canada that Laurier is sponsoring through the blended-visa sponsorship program.

After more than 24 hours in transit, the family flew into Toronto Pearson International Airport on a government-chartered plane to a special terminal sectioned off from the public.

The family of four had previously spent four years living in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

Robert Donelson, vice-president of development and alumni relations and chair of the university’s sponsorship committee, described their meeting as an “amazing moment.”

“The airport hotel lobby was packed with people picking up refugees, the refugees themselves, there was luggage everywhere. The hugs, the embraces and the smiles in that lobby, I felt like I was a part of something really historically significant in Canada,” said Donelson.

With only three days of notice before their arrival, the committee needed to be prepared well in advance. Volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure accommodations and household items were collected and accordingly distributed in time.

The family was brought to a townhouse in Kitchener after their arrival. An Arabic speaking volunteer was able to show them around the house and explain how things worked, while a local restaurant donated a hot meal that was waiting for them.

In less than a week, the family had already set up a bank account and OHIP cards.

They made connections with a local public school that their eldest son would be attending and had the chance to connect with other Syrians at the local Islamic community centre.

Both parents will be attending English as a second language classes starting within the next few weeks to ensure they are able to learn English and secure employment.

The father has experience working as a wholesale grocer for a grocery store in Syria, which has since been bombed. He is looking forward to being able to provide for his family once again.

The outpouring of generosity from the community plays a key factor in the success of any sponsorship.  Other local initiatives describe the importance of continuing with this kind of work.

“When the community helps the refugees in improving their language, well being and encouraging participation, this breaks down a lot of barriers for the refugees and directly improves the socioeconomic level of the society as they become motivated to advance their education and career. The quicker the community works together in the settlement process, the faster and easier it is for the refugees to settle,” said Dr. Ghada Al-Shurafa, Muslim Association of Canada: Embrace Syria Waterloo Lead at the Kitchener Masjid in an email.

Students on Laurier’s campus have also been nothing but supportive of the initiative.

“It sets a good precedent, not only for other universities but the rest of the community too. [Sponsoring] three families is huge, but there’s so much more that can be done. One of the largest barriers is people who are uninformed. Hopefully, it helps counter the misinformation that goes around,” said Chelsea Brown, fifth-year global studies student at Laurier.

Laurier’s original goal of $60,000, was greatly surpassed when the final sum of donations totalled almost $85,000. Donelson said the extra funds came at a great time considering new complications that arose with the second family.

“The second family that’s coming to Kitchener is actually related to the first family. The moms are sisters. What we’ve discovered is that this woman has just had a baby at the refugee camp. She had the baby just before the end of the year. So we’ve now had to ensure that we’ve got the kind of things that they’d need,” said Donelson.

The next family is expected to arrive within the next few weeks, with no exact date known.

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