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The First Anniversary of the arrival of our Syrian Refugee Family,

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Edmonton

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The parish hall of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Edmonton was packed to the “gils” on Sunday, April 2, 2017 when parishioners and community sponsors gathered to celebrate the First Anniversary of the arrival of our Syrian Refugee Family, Naleen, Basheer and their three children. Our delegated councillor, Hilary, happened to be in Edmonton on visitation so she was invited to participate in the gathering. The spirit of joy was infectious !

After a warm welcome by Mary Anne MacDonald, one of our “Charism Friends”, and Melanie, a member of the sponsorship committee, Naleen, who did not know English when she arrived in Canada in April, 2016, guided us through a power point presentation that portrayed the beauty of Syria pre-war and the horror and devastation of ten years of conflict.

Pre-war: Syria, as we discovered, was truly a magnificent country: we encountered beautiful, happy looking children and proud parents; the rich diversity of ethnic and religious differences were highlighted; we saw the wonder of nature at its best; educational and health facilities; architecture dating back centuries graced the landscape. It was a land of opportunity.

On-going civil war: It is almost impossible to describe what has become of this beautiful, sacred place which has been home to multiple ethnic and religious groups and, which since the beginning of the war, has become a place where almost no one feels safe, bombs explode day and night, thousands of families and individuals daily flee for their lives. Trying to escape means gathering a few meager possessions- water and food, if they are available, perhaps some medical supplies, documents to prove one’s identity and a memento or two to carry into the unknown that lies ahead. When the moment to leave has arrived there begins the heart-rending process of saying painful good-byes to family members who will be left behind, aware that they may not live to see another day and that their good-bye could have been the last. As Naleen, clothed in her hijab, spoke with great dignity and grace, thanking all present for the gift that she and her family had experienced in coming to Canada, one could feel in the room a cacophony of emotions. Yes, they have found freedom; their children seem happy and are finally able to go to school; their medical and dental needs, thanks to the generosity of doctors, nurses, dentists in the parish, have been met. Even in the midst of such abundant blessings, their hearts are heavy. Naleen cannot support her recently widowed 25 year-old sister-in law and three children who still live in Syria; Basheer can only imagine what it would be like to return to his home village after the war because it was totally destroyed by government forces shortly after their arrival in Canada.

Entertainment: After the heaviness of the power point the atmosphere in the room shifted. We were treated to entertainment by the choir of The Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. What a delight! We experienced a rich diversity of nationalities, stories of courage and hope, a variety of musical talent, both vocal and instrumental. One gentleman from Japan had an absolutely exquisite voice. The song he chose to share carried us through joy, sorrow, hope, death and life. For a few moments after he finished singing total silence filled the hall and then people erupted in clapping.

Listen to the song

Refreshments: When our spirits had been refreshed thanks to the choir, we were invited to mingle with one another and to be physically nourished. A magnificent cake, designed with the flags of Syria and Canada, was cut by the family and shared with all.

Moving Forward: The official time of sponsorship has ended. However, as the family continues to adjust to live in Edmonton, many parishioners continue to support them as they try to find more affordable housing, work that provides a living wage, and on-going ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Although the family is Muslim, and the majority of the sponsors are Catholic or from other Christian denominations, we are one in heartfelt prayer for peace in their war-torn land. Friendships that have been forged are not subject to religious barriers when a listening ear is needed or when a picnic in the park would be the best way to let the children run off some steam and build relationships with other children who may or may not have grown up in a “land that is glorious and free”.

Naleen, Basheer and family and 35,000 other refugees have found a home in Canada during the past year. However, they are but one family. Hundreds of thousands of refugees still roam our world seeking a “place to call home”. As the anniversary celebration drew to a close, many of us were left with a haunting question in our hearts- how does one begin to address such, seemingly, insurmountable suffering, such grave injustice in our world? We must, as Pope Francis reminds us, be a people of HOPE:

I would like to ask you all to see a ray of hope in the eyes and hearts of refugees and of those who have been forcibly displaced. A hope that is expressed in expectations for the future, in the desire for friendship, in the wish to participate in the host society also through learning the language, access to employment and the education of children. I admire the courage of those who hope to be able gradually to resume a normal life, waiting for joy and love to return to brighten their existence. We can and must all nourish this hope! (5/24/13)