The feelings of appreciation were as warm and strong as the Turkish coffee, as the Al Sahhar family spent a recent Sunday afternoon in their new apartment visiting with Lori and Jordan Rosove of the Temple Israel Social Action Committee, an interpreter, and a reporter from the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.
Last fall, in just five weeks, Temple Israel raised sufficient funds to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to Ottawa. Since then, the committee has worked with co-ordinating officials from Jewish Family Services to ensure the family’s transition to life in Canada has gone smoothly.
It had been less than three weeks since their arrival in Ottawa, and Lori Rosove described it as “unbelievable.”
“We have completed approximately 23 major tasks since that time and it feels like they have been here much longer,” she said.
The Al Sahhar family, who are Muslim, include parents Ziad and Fidaa, sons Tarek, 11, Mohammed, six, and daughter Sendos, who is almost seven. They came to Canada through the Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Joint Assistance Program, which partners with organizations to help settle refugees with special needs – a program the family qualified for due to Sendos’ health condition. The support through the program is for 12 months. In combination with the Temple-raised funds, the family will be supported for about two years, explained Lori.
Because of Sendos’ condition, a doctor was on board the family’s flight from Beirut to Montreal to care for her and for four other patients with medical needs during the trip.
“He had been awake for 48 hours straight,” said Jordan Rosove. “Despite this incredible demand on him, his care for our family’s daughter Sendos was exceptional.”
“We were amazed by how much people cared about us, and were doing everything to make us happy,” said Ziad, who, with Fidaa, spoke to the Bulletin through Nada, a volunteer interpreter.
“We were worried and had so many concerns about our life. But, when we got here, everything had been taken care of. We can breathe properly,” he said.
A team of more than 30 Temple Israel volunteers organized and collected all of the family’s initial settlement requirements. Tasks were broken down into categories like clothing, furniture, translators, education resources, language classes. Their goal – which was met – was to have the entire apartment set up and stocked, so the family could go from airport to their new apartment on Meadowlands Drive.
“We like the furniture, everything!” said Ziad, enthusiastically. “We were surprised that there was even food prepared for us. We didn’t need to buy anything.”
Lori described for them how, before he passed away, a man in his 80s told his executor he wanted his furniture to go to a family who needed it. “I know exactly who we’re giving the furniture to,” his executor replied.
The children were clustered around the TV set watching cartoons, and there were big smiles all around.
“The children are very happy and adjusting very well,” said Fidaa. “The only challenge is language, and they are working on it. They are excited about everything.”
The family is from a remote village, and spoke no English before arriving in Canada. But they are all working very hard on their English lessons.
“The English teacher is very, very, good,” said Ziad. “Everything is very new for me, but I’m starting to learn English.”
An illustrated Arabic/English dictionary sits on the shelf in the living room, ready for use.
“The English teacher takes her time and is very supportive,” said Fidaa. “I feel there is already a difference.”
While Fidaa misses her sisters and brothers overseas, she said she feels she has family here: the people who have helped them.
Earlier in the week, Temple volunteer Eva Lazar took Fidaa to register at OHIP and then picked up Ziad at his adult school and took him to OHIP.
“Any time we do any major task, we need an interpreter,” Lori said. “We have an interpreter co-ordinator as one of our volunteers, and she assembled a list of interpreters that we can call when needed. It has been working out very well … However, one Sunday, we took them to a Jewish Family Services potluck and there were many Arabic-speaking people there – so we didn’t need an interpreter.”
When they do have an interpreter, Lori and her volunteers take advantage of that to chat with the family and ask them about themselves and their experiences.
“We’ve learned that they left their home in Syria two years ago,” she said. “They heard the fighting was coming close to their town and so they moved. Shortly after, their house was bombed.”
Ziad, who had been a painter for 20 years, started to get painting work in Lebanon and went back and forth to Syria every two weeks. When it got even more dangerous, the family moved to an apartment in a town outside Beirut. Their 11-year-old son had not been in school since they left Syria.
“They made a family decision to emigrate,” she said, “and they were told by the United Nations that they had to go to Canada. They didn’t have a choice. Ziad told me that a few years earlier he had met someone who had travelled to Canada and he told him it was a beautiful place …When the UN official said ‘you can go to Canada,’ he broke down and said ‘this my dream!’ They are unbelievably grateful; they are caring, affectionate, people and say ‘thank you’ many times a day.”
Imam Mohamad Jebara of the Cordova Centre mosque recently held a service to which Temple Israel members were invited. A Temple volunteer brought Ziad and, when he was introduced to Rabbi Rob Morais, Ziad said, “You’re all my brothers and sisters. I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
Sue Potechin, principal of the Temple Israel Religious School, asked the pupils to draw welcoming pictures for the family.
“The mother thanked us very much,” said Lori, “and said they were beautiful.”
The Al Sahhar family is happily planning their permanent life in Canada.
“We already feel this is our country, and I hope to be able to learn English well and support my family,” said Ziad, who would like to resume house painting as soon as he’s made sufficient progress in his language lessons.
Ziad said he and Fidaa want to thank everyone who helped them come to Canada.
“They are a model of how everyone in the world should be,” he said.