Finding Home

United Neighbours: a Toronto community welcomes a Syrian refugee family

On an unseasonably cool day over the recent May long weekend, a large group of friends has gathered for a potluck picnic at Toronto’s High Park. The gathering includes kids, teens and adults of all ages. Frisbees are tossed, kites are flown, balls are kicked and kids are exploring the nearby woods. Food covers picnic tables and everyone eventually stops to fill a plate or grab a bite amid talk, laughter and the comforting of toddlers.

Like many typical get-togethers at this time of year, the event is marking the end of a long Toronto winter and the five-month anniversary of the arrival of the Alaalyan family to the city. The two 30-something parents, Mohamad and Sanaa, and their five children, now ranging in ages from 15 months years to 13 years, arrived in Toronto in December 2016 from Syria by way of Lebanon. Today, they’re all enjoying the picnic with the community members that got together to sponsor the family and support them to make a new life in Canada.

The Alaalyan Family

In September 2015 the world was shocked by what was happening in Syria and the masses of people trying to escape what they understood to be certain death. Even though we saw hundreds of images of overloaded lifeboats with children clinging on for their lives, it was one particular photo of the body of a toddler washed ashore that outraged many and galvanized them into doing something immediate.

One of those who wanted to take action was Alex Gill, a Toronto social entrepreneur and instructor at Ryerson University, who was travelling in Turkey on business when he saw the photo of little Alan Kurdi. He recalls, “It was traumatizing. When I got back home people were talking about what to do and the idea of sponsoring a family seemed a way to try to change some lives.” Alex’s professional areas of expertise including foster care reform, newcomer settlement and youth entrepreneurship meant that he could bring a great deal to the table. He began discussing possibilities with fellow members of St. Matthew’s United Church, including David Carter-Whitney, a high-level administrator with the province of Ontario. David’s extensive knowledge of government programs and expertise in navigating sometimes complex procedures would be invaluable in taking on a family sponsorship.

Alex and David joined forces but knew they had to put together a group that would be as committed as they were to taking action. They began by sending out a meeting notice through Facebook that attracted eight people – four from the church and the rest from the community. “We had wondered if anyone would show,” Alex remembers, “so it was a good start.” Even more encouraging was the opportunity to merge with another group that had come together with the same purpose. About 20 members of the Regal Heights Residents’ Association were meeting at the same time to strategize how to move on this urgent matter. The two groups recognized the energy that each brought and decided to combine their efforts. So they became United Neighbours.

Planning began in earnest to join the many other Canadian groups who wanted to be private sponsors of refugee families. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program is “unique in the world” and has enabled more than 275,000 refugees since 1979 to begin new lives in Canada.

As the Council explains on its website, “Privately sponsored refugees are resettled refugees…they are approved overseas and arrive in Canada as permanent residents.” Private sponsors are responsible for providing “financial support and settlement assistance for the refugees they sponsor, usually for one year after arrival.” The Council emphasizes that private sponsorship of refugees is over and above those refugees resettled by the Canadian government.
Click on any photo to enlarge

United Neighbours includes people from various backgrounds with such diverse skills as management, entrepreneurship, human resources, technology and teaching. Many are from the local community but there also others from across the city. There are members who were refugees themselves and understand what it means to re-start your life in a new world. Alex acknowledges, “We were pretty much self-organized. We didn’t really have a template for what to do – we just used our best judgement for what was needed.” Although Alex and David act as co-chairs, they stress that there is no real hierarchy since committees are responsible for different areas.

Job one was to raise money. The suggested amount for private sponsorship was $35,000 but once the group deliberated, they were confident they could raise up to $50,000 given the relative affluence of the community and people’s compassion for the plight of these families. The effort included door-to-door solicitations, Facebook posts and a Canada Helps fundraising page. The most popular activity by far was a Salsa Night organized by a former Mexican refugee that raised $5,000 one night in April 2016 and built momentum.

With their paperwork in order, their volunteers well organized and their fundraising on track to meeting its target, United Neighbours began the waiting game. They assured the government that they were willing to sponsor a large family with exceptional needs since they felt the group had the skills to handle the challenge. In June 2016 they were finally matched with the Alaalyans – a family of six living in Lebanon after escaping from Syria. The Neighbours still didn’t know when the family would actually arrive. To make things are little more complicated, Sanaa, was nine months pregnant and not able to travel. So they had to wait until the baby was born and, Alex laughs, “got security clearance!”

Now it was going to be a family of seven needing everything from housing, to furniture to schools. Everything had to be ready even though the group still did not know when the family would be arriving so they could not make arrangements for an apartment. To the group’s delight, however, they were able to reach the Alaalyans by phone in July and set up regular communication via WhatsApp and a translator. (The cell phone messaging app continues to be an important way the parents communicate with the group.) Throughout the summer and the fall, the call was put out for donations of furniture, clothes and anything else that a young family would need. The community at large, not just group members, was once again generous and items were donated and stored in group members’ homes until the family’s arrival. Another community member’s generosity went even further with the offer of a large basement apartment for the family’s use until they could find a more permanent home.

Finally, the big day came in December. With two weeks’ notice the family arrived at Pearson Airport and were greeted by six enthusiastic United Neighbours. Alex says, “We all loaded into several cars with some of the kids riding separately from their parents. They obviously trusted us enough to allow this.” This outlook seemed to set the tone for the way the family would settle into their new life. David notes, “They are open to new things and want to try everything.”

Within days of their arrival, there was a major snowfall in Toronto and the kids were enthralled. They went tobogganing, tried skating and the oldest girl Rouaa (now 13) attended that quintessential holiday ballet, the Nutcracker, with David’s 17-year old daughter, Bridget. At the High Park picnic the girls are hanging out together, while Rouaa shows her rope skipping skills. Bridget remembers the Nutcracker evening. “It was a bit confusing when we invited Rouaa because her family thought we were inviting her to do ballet. Eventually, we figured it out and she joined us.” When Rouaa is asked if she enjoyed the ballet, she shrugs, both girls laugh, and agree that it was “too long”.

Another member of the team, Alzira Islamovic, became involved with United Neighbours after responding to the Facebook post from Alex Gill. Her connection to Alex had been as one of his teaching assistants at Ryerson University where she received her MA in public policy. She is now a policy program analyst with Ontario’s Youth Justice Services division. Alzira herself had been a refugee with her family from Bosnia and had escaped the horror of that war in 1996. In becoming involved with United Neighbours, she recalls, “I also saw the picture of Alan Kurdi and when Alex posted about sponsoring a family, I knew I wanted to help.” She remembers her own experience arriving in Vancouver as a privately sponsored refugee at 21 years old, speaking no English and with half her family still back in Eastern Europe. “I understand the challenges that newcomers face, especially those who are Muslim. Although in the Bosnian war, Muslims were the victims of terrorist attacks, we were still seen as different.”

She now organizes supports for the Alaalyans, exploring all the benefits that are available for the family and the kids. Her knowledge of government programs and how to access them has helped the family settle into their community and make the transition smoother. “They are very happy to be here and have a very positive attitude,” she says. Alzira is especially encouraging of Mohamad’s and Sanaa’s efforts to learn English as soon as possible. “When I arrived it took me a while to learn English because I had to work right away and did not have the same supports that we’ve tried to provide to this family.” She estimates she could have been 10 years further along in her education and career if she had been able to learn English sooner.

Alzira appreciates the significance of a group like United Neighbours and how they have been able to support a refugee family in an unfamiliar country. But she emphasizes the important role of government in such a major undertaking. “Although community involvement is crucial, government needs to be a guiding force that people can depend on in case the enthusiasm of individuals wanes.” She is certain, however, that no matter what, the group will continue to support the Alaalyan family well beyond their 12-month obligation.

“Well, no one’s come home from school crying.” That’s the understated assessment of Susan Noakes, another member of United Neighbours who has been involved in practically every aspect of getting the family settled in Toronto. She is quietly pleased that the kids have made friends at school and are eager to join various activities, especially soccer. She has gotten to know the children well and has organized outings with them to the AGO and the ROM where their curiosity and enthusiasm was infectious.

In addition to her job with CBC News, Susan made time to canvass neighbours for funds and household goods and once a permanent home was found for the family, to organize the move. “It was a huge coordinating effort,” she says of trying to find a suitable place for a family of seven in such an absurdly expensive city. Finally the group hit the jackpot with a three-bedroom apartment, not far from the family’s original neighbourhood. They have the bottom floor of a house close to schools, with easy subway access and, significantly, with a supportive landlord.

Susan acknowledges that so far things have gone well. She admits, “We didn’t really know what to expect. How much difficulty would there be with the language? What if the family used corporal punishment?” Luckily, these fears were largely allayed since the family is relaxed and appreciative while at the same time eager to be independent and to look after their own affairs. “Sanaa is very organized and the kids are well behaved so it has been easier than we thought. They don’t want to be driven everywhere and have learned to use the subway. The parents are also doing their own banking which is a big step to independence.”

Ricki Wortzman, an educational consultant, has played an important role in helping the kids get settled in school. Along with Rhonda McEwen, also an educator and Professor at the University of Toronto, the two have made sure that the kids were enrolled in school within days of arriving and that they were meaningfully supported. Ricki says, “We act as a liaison between the family and the school – we’re on call as needed.” But she stresses that their involvement has been relatively easy since the kids are eager students who have fit easily into their new environment. She has also helped them along in Sunday tutoring sessions at their home. “Well I wouldn’t call it tutoring exactly,” she says. “I started by using cards to label items in the house and playing games to get them involved. It’s like a one-room schoolhouse.” She is encouraged by the support that the children have received at school from their teachers and administrators. “The kids want to join everything,” she marvels, “they’re learning how to swim, how to skate, whatever the other kids are doing.”
Click on any photo to enlarge

Rhonda notes the family’s desire to live in a neighbourhood that includes people from all different backgrounds rather than seeking out a Syrian community. “They really want to be part of the city – not only with people from their own country.” She understands this wish and remembers her own experience moving from a Caribbean island to England for university. “I didn’t want to hang out just with people from the islands – I knew lots of them back home – I wanted to get to know people with backgrounds different from mine.”

Rhonda and Ricki also worked with Sanaa and Mohamad to access adult ESL classes through the Toronto Board’s LINC program (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada). Ricki found the program and Rhonda took them to assessments and helped the couple navigate the system. The two educators were impressed by the young parents’ commitment to learning English. “They attended classes four nights a week throughout the winter,” Ricki says admiringly. She also appreciates the couple’s efforts to take on whatever being Canadian means, including putting together a BBQ they bought that needed assembly. Ricki tells how she was visiting the family in their new home and met the couple in the driveway as they were following an instruction manual so they could assemble their new BBQ. “Almost finished,” said Mohamad, as Ricki looked on in awe. “That’s something that I wouldn’t even attempt,” she confesses.

Amanda Horn-Hudecki, also a United Neighbour, is in her joyful element as she nuzzles 15-month old Ahmed at the High Park picnic. She and her husband Michael joined the group when Amanda was looking for a yoga class and saw the post by Alex and David asking for help in sponsoring a family. A Winnipeg transplant, Amanda came to Ryerson University in 2010 for a Masters in Public Policy and stayed in Toronto where she and Michael now work at the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. She says, “The opportunity to host a family resonated with me since it was so rooted in community.” It was also a chance for the young couple to become involved locally in a meaningful way and get to know people.

Amanda and Michael have co-chaired the housing and social support committees and have been part of the budget and scheduling groups. She also gets to babysit occasionally, even though she says the older kids do most of the babysitting when she’s there. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Amanda and Sanaa are the same age but have such vastly different life experiences. “We do connect though,” Amanda notes, “and I’m grateful that the situation has brought us together.” Once in a while they’ll go out to such places as the Paintlounge, where groups get together to creating paintings for fun. They both remember seeing the movie Titanic when they were in their early teens. She is certain that their friendship will last well beyond the official 12-month obligation of the group.

Amanda appreciates the organic ‘community hub’ model that United Neighbours embodies and is very impressed with what a group of engaged citizens can accomplish. But she also agrees with her fellow Neighbour member Alzira about the responsibility of government in the process and its important role in making this unique Canadian program work.

Another resource that the group has tapped is the treasure-trove of Arabic-speaking university and college students in the city who can act as translators. The Neighbours’ connections to the University of Toronto and George Brown College have resulted in many volunteers eager to provide translation services for the family at a moment’s notice. (Pictured here are two of the translators: Raja Abdo (l) and Alaa Alsoufi (r)).

Minda Sherman, a human resources professional, has been involved with United Neighbours from the beginning. She helps the family access medical services and is now working with Mohamad and Sanaa to prepare them for eventual employment. The family is pretty healthy but two of the kids have needed to see specialists. Minda says, “I’ve helped them get appointments and navigate the health care system since that can be pretty complicated even for the most sophisticated consumer.” She is particularly pleased with the Healthy Smiles Ontario Program that has enabled all the kids to receive dental care. The free service is available to children under 17 who come from low-income families.

In helping Mohamad and Sanaa with job searches, Minda is focusing on long-term prospects that include training and can lead to positions with adequate income to support the family. She has worked with them to determine what they’re interested in pursuing and how best to get there. For Mohamad, a program through ACCES Employment, a non-profit organization, seems to fit the bill. He will receive training in the construction trades through an initiative that serves Syrian refugees. Given the work that is currently available in the building frenzy that defines Toronto, his potential employment outlook is bright. Sanaa’s prospects are a little more challenging since she has little work experience outside the home. Nevertheless, Minda is hopeful, “She is a very bright, organized woman who has learned English very quickly. I’m hoping that she can can get into program where she’ll receive training, perhaps as a care aide.”

Susan Noakes observes, “The group now has a body of knowledge about supporting refugees.” It became clear in talking with group members that they feel have the kind of experience that can be used in similar situations where communities can come together to help vulnerable people from different walks of life.

United Neighbours gives much of the credit for their success to the Alaalyan family. The group realizes that if they had sponsored a family with a different outlook and more challenging needs, the process would have been more difficult. Nevertheless, they have discussed the possibility of sponsoring another refugee family in the near future. Their involvement has been encouraging and energizing and they are keen to try it again.

In talking with group members and watching them interact, it’s clear that they are not just a collection of individuals who want to do good. They have become an effective entity that is addressing an issue and they want to continue working together. They are aware that they are a community and not simply people who happen to live near each other or to move in the same circles.

The Neighbours know that their embrace and support has made settlement easier for the Alaalyans. They also know that the family will likely face some kind of discrimination or prejudice in the future – they cannot insulate them from that. But a story that was making the rounds at the High Park picnic made everyone hopeful about life in this most multi-cultural of cities. Rhonda McEwen, the educator and all-round organizer, told us…

“Did you hear about the cell phone? Well, Mohamad was on the subway last week and realized when he got off that he lost his phone. He was so upset, especially since the phone had been his lifeline for so long. We tried to help but we knew that he was probably not getting it back. About a day later, I got a call from the TTC lost and found. The caller said that someone turned the phone in and it had been ringing non-stop (I was one of the callers). The TTC people returned the last call and got me! So, Mohamad got his phone back and… that’s Toronto!”

– Miria Ioannou
Picnic photos by Schuster Gindin, other photos courtesy United Neighbours

United Neighbours Facebook page

Canadian government private sponsorship info

Origins of the private refugee sponsorship program  in Canada:

This article can be found in The Big Issues in the section  Finding Home.
We are @livingtoronto2 on social media. Follow us on Facebook. instagram 1371778321_twitter-128-black


A colleague of mine at York quite a few years ago had a student from Afghanistan whose parents were living in a shipping container in Pakistan. My friend raised money in the Jewish community and even was on CBC radio urging people to contribute. He got them over somehow. This is really something to celebrate on Canada Day: open arms to refugees and successfully integrating them into Canadian society.
Robert Fisher, Toronto


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