For Bayan Khatib, making a difference in the lives of Syrian refugees hits close to home.
Khatib, a volunteer for the Muslin Association of Canada (MAC), only recently realized her own family was sponsored by a church to come to Canada nearly three decades ago.
“I decided it was my time to give back,” Khatib said. Along with First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, Khatib and other members of Masjid Toronto, a downtown Toronto mosque, are helping bringing refugees Talek, Walaa and their two children (who chose not to disclose their last names) to Canada after they escaped conflict and political unrest in Syria two years ago.
Members of Unitarian voted unanimously in February to begin the sponsorship process after considering the dire situation in the Middle East. They were looking for a tangible way to help, said Annette Wilde, project leader. They began an “aggressive” fundraising campaign, hosted a Middle Eastern buffet, brought in a number of speakers and had a face-painting day for kids to help raise awareness.
They considered a number of families, but looked for a relatively healthy family with young children that could increase the chance of success in the city, Wilde said. Wilde was also drawn to the family’s desperate situation, where their prized possessions (including Walaa’s dowry) were already sold in order to survive.
Despite having an uncle here, the family needed support by a charitable organization to raise the minimum government target of $20,000 to be able to support themselves for a year in Toronto.
However, considering the extra costs to live in Toronto, First Unitarian set a goal of $40,000. The money will cover a year of expenses, including housing and food. They began the campaign in March and exceeded their fundraising goal two and a half months later.
It will take about six months to get the family in Canada, Wilde said. Until then, the church has been sending care packages as well as providing emotional support.
“They are excited, but also cautiously optimistic because it’s a long wait,” Wilde said.
Both congregations have been in contact with the family member living here.
“It’s a very Canadian thing to do,” Khatib said of the two religions pooling their resources to support the cause, driven by a mutual understanding of love and justice. Khatib said the group is also in talks with a synagogue to start another partnership.
The MAC partnership is key to helping the family transition. Knowledge of the language and culture, along with a people to guide the family through the city will be beneficial toward their long-term well-being, Khatib said.
“Toronto is so multicultural and there’s a strong active Muslim community,” Khatib said. However, coming from a war zone, she warns there will be challenges for the children to adjust, especially having been out of school for a while.
The bigger aim and vision is to see many more family sponsorships. The two groups have started on their second fundraising campaign to bring another family to Canada.
“Every moment matters,” said Wilde on the number of misplaced families still seeking refuge. “Every day we see how difficult our world has become and we seem powerless to do systemic change. But doing this is better than wringing our hands and hoping things will get better,” she said.