3.B A Synagogue’s experience sponsoring refugees of another faith
Location: Oakville, Ontario
Name of Sponsoring Group: Abraham’s Children Together (ACT)
Type of Sponsoring Group: Sponsorship Agreement Holder
Number of Sponsors in Group: Three organizations
Sponsoring Since: 2015
Sponsoring Group Description: Shaarei Beth El Synagogue in partnership with Maple Grove United Church and Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need
Interviewee: Rabbi Stephen Wise
What was it like sponsoring someone you do not know?
It was very interesting because it’s unusual for a Jewish group to sponsor a Syrian refugee. However, after thought and discussion, we realized that it didn’t matter the religion, gender, age, or ethnic background of the refugees. They were human beings and as a Jewish people we know all too well that we were discriminated against when we were refugees attempting to come to Canada through this past century. We therefore resolved to help bring this family over no matter their country of origin or Islamic background.
What made you decide to work with another faith group to pursue a sponsorship?
Our faith groups have worked together many times over the past few years in interfaith dialogue and exchange. We have pulled the curtain, so to speak, by going to each other’s houses of worship, meeting one on one, and engaging in open dialogue about issues that divide us and bring us closer together. After building this trust and brotherhood, it was not difficult to work together to sponsor a refugee family.
How has faith been a motivator for you to pursue this partnership and sponsor refugees together?
Caring for the stranger is one of the highest values of Judaism. We use this as the basis of our faith. We remember that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt and treated as slaves. When we became a free people, we resolved to remember that experience and never treat the stranger as we were once treated. While this happened thousands of years ago, it’s a commandment that rings true in every era including today. Judaism reminds us that we must welcome the guest, feed the hungry, help the oppressed – and sponsoring the refugee is the epitome of living out these values.
What are the advantages of partnering across faiths?
We had already established a level of trust, and working together made our bonds even stronger. We visited each other’s houses of worship when the refugee family came to Canada and wanted to meet the faith communities that sponsored them. We have since gone further in creating more interfaith experiences for the people of Oakville and Halton region such as an interfaith summer camp and interfaith walk for peace.
Moreover, when crises happen, such as the shooting at the mosque in Quebec City in January 2017, we were quick to mobilize and together plan an appropriate response – which was to circle the local mosque with people holding hands, showing our support and care for all Muslims in this time of hatred and violence.
What are some challenges?
There was some initial hesitancy of some in the community to reach out to people coming from [Syria]. After that, there were also some challenges in Canada. As we looked for housing, some landlords did not want to rent to a large refugee family. Some companies were hesitant to hire refugees when we looked for jobs. But these were more the exception than the rule; we had more positive than negative experiences finding housing, employment, school, and health resources.
How many sponsorships have you pursued together?
This was the only one, but we did provide leadership and advice to other groups. Our synagogue then became a helping sponsor to another local group and there is discussion as we speak about sponsoring another family.
How does this partnership impact the refugees you are sponsoring?
The family was overwhelmed that a Jewish and Christian group knew of their fate and was willing to both raise the funds and bring them here. When I met the children, and talked about Judaism and Israel, they were in disbelief that we helped and also curious about our faith. Soon after they arrived, they were invited to be honoured at one of our worship services. Our congregation came out to meet them and the youngest son offered beautiful words of thanks. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. We ordered middle eastern food that they appreciated, but an even more meaningful gesture was when the mother in the family baked a special seven-layer dessert at the synagogue that we all enjoyed immensely.
What is the experience of arrival and the refugees’ first weeks like?
The arrival was very exciting and happened so quickly. We knew it could be any day but we had to drop everything and go. One of the church members hosted the refugee family for the first few weeks until their new house was vacated and ready.
I remember meeting the family at the airport; they were very happy but still overwhelmed by what was happening. A special moment was the day we moved them into their house. We had the moving truck come and were moving in furniture and they were helping figure out what should go in which room. We finally took a break and all sat in the living room eating pizza. Breaking bread together overcame all language barriers and we sat and laughed and were rejuvenated both physically and spiritually.
How did you find accessing settlement services in your community?
It has been an excellent experience. The town rallied behind the resettlement. There was a meeting at city hall where all interested parties gathered to combine resources and explain how each group could help. The Community Foundation (a local granting organization) helped lead the charge and, even a year later, provided grants to continue the resettlement process because even though the deadline was one year, we knew it would take longer.
What is the best part of your sponsorship experience?
There is something beautiful about helping another human being start life anew. Not only did we help bring the family over, we worked together to provide them with all the tools to succeed – housing, food, clothing, healthcare, job opportunities, educational opportunities, a computer, and a car. With these pieces in place, we have a very strong feeling they will succeed in settling well into Canada and not only stand on their own two feet but thrive and give back to the country that helped them.
How are the refugees you sponsored doing today?
By all accounts, really well. The father and older sons have jobs, and the older sons plan to attend university. The younger children are picking up English quite quickly and are in school and doing well. They are self-sufficient and earning income and acclimating to Ontario quite smoothly.