My Experience Welcoming A Syrian Refugee Family Into Canada

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

I am proud to be from Calgary, Canada, and I have not been more proud than I am right now. Since we elected Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party to be our new national leader, Canada has been welcoming Syrian refugees into our winter wonderland!

Each Syrian refugee family is usually either sponsored by the government or by individuals here (usually five families join together to financially sponsor a Syrian refugee family). However, the family that we got to welcome into Canada had different circumstances: they had been applying for asylum in Canada for years, and were finally granted temporary residency.

We volunteered to provide cheese sandwiches for the welcome crew and refugees. When it came time to make the sign, we had considered writing, “Welcome to Our Country.” But when I thought about it, I realized that that sounds slightly condescending, and that “our country” is reinforcing their “outsider” status. We need to welcome them like we mean it! So we wrote, “Welcome to Your New Country.” My oldest girl has the foundations of an understanding about what countries are, so I tried to explain to her that these folks were from another country, but they weren’t safe in that country, so they’re coming to our country.

The Syrian Refugee Support Group in Calgary is an active and vibrant group. I had been following their Facebook posts about this family’s needs. Since they are not sponsored, they arrive with nothing. But Calgary is a can-do city– we help out! The support group got access to the family’s new house a couple of days before they arrived, and completely made it over. They arranged for donations from many local businesses for supplies, and sought out furniture donations to furnish the house. I was unable to volunteer to help with this house, but I did manage to donate a first aid kit and a woman’s toiletries gift pack, along with some homemade gifts for the kids.

My girls and I packed our donations, snacks, and sign into our car, and headed to the airport to greet the newest Canadians. There were dozens of others with signs and gifts. Many signs said, “Welcome Home.” One sign said, “Never Ever Leave.” Christmas music was playing softly, and we were surrounded by impeccably decorated Christmas trees. I couldn’t imagine a more picturesque time or place to be arriving as a refugee to a new country.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

We met another family of welcomers in the parking lot, and walked in together. There was an unspoken sense of camaraderie and a shared purpose. Our presence at the airport terminal B was primarily to support the Syrian refugee family arriving, but our secondary purpose was to make a point. Syrian refugees are welcome in Calgary. “They ain’t heavy,” we are telling others with our signs and snacks and cheers, “they’re our brothers.

Our good spirits waned over time as we waited for the Syrian family to progress through customs. They took a surprisingly long time– must have been a lot of “i”s to dot and “t”s to cross with their arrival. I can imagine how exhausting that must have been for them. The last leg of their journey was from London, England (not a short trip!) with four children between nine years old and a baby. Then to have to wait and wait to progress through customs, while all their paperwork is checked and double-checked. They had probably been traveling for at least twelve hours.

I was chasing after my girls (endlessly fascinated by the Christmas trees) when I heard a huge cheer. I picked up both girls and went over, trying to explain to my oldest what was going on. She kept asking, “Where are the people who lost their home?” I tried to lift her up to see them, but they were surrounded by reporters, cameras, and supporters, so we didn’t get a good look.

Screencap from video.
Screencap from video.

I thought they were ultra-adorable, though, when I saw them. The dad and older son wore matching Batman shirts! And they all looked far more put-together and way less disheveled than my family looks from driving across town.

Through an interpreter, the mom said:

“We thank Canada that we are here, and that we are safe.”

The dad added:

“The future is here for us– for our kids, and we hope we can contribute back to the country and to the community.”

It’s bizarre for me to think that right-wingers in the US and Canada don’t want these people to be here. If it were up to those politicians, this lovely family would still be fighting for survival in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Jordan, or struggling to survive a journey across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded and dilapidated boat, or worse, still in Syria itself. I have heard people say that we shouldn’t welcome refugees because it would raise our taxes; I have heard that we shouldn’t welcome them because they might be terrorists, or they might try to bring Sharia law into the country.

None of these things have happened as predicted. What has happened is that we now have many new Syrian neighbors. Refugee families get healthcare and education for their kids, and privileged white kids like mine get to meet and hear the stories of folks who have a different set of life experiences.

We all win when we open our hearts and our borders to those who need a safe place. And these refugees will learn English, have their Syrian credentials transferred to Canada, start working, and become a contributing force in the economy. And I’m willing to bet that they will be the first in line to welcome the next wave of refugees when another crisis occurs.