More than two years ago, Canadians lined up to sponsor families from Syria who were fleeing a brutal civil war that had raged for almost five years. They were part of the effort by the Canadian government to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in the first three months of 2016.
One of those group that sponsored two families was co-chaired by Cathy Deogrades. She spoke to us about what the sponsorship experience was like.
Q. Why did you want to get involved in sponsoring a family?
Cathy: When Father Pierre announced at mass we were sponsoring a Syrian refugee family and needed volunteers, I thought I should help out. I had heard lots on the news about the crisis and believed this was a great thing our church was doing. Our parish provided an opportunity to actively help with a humanitarian cause, so I signed up. I didn’t know how I would help. I am not an accountant or a teacher and I don’t speak Arabic, so I went to the first meeting hoping to fill a gap. The gap ended up being co-chair of the committee.
Q. What was that first day like?
Cathy: The family was very tired the first day. It was a long trip with several stopovers before they arrived late at night in Ottawa. I can remember Yasar, the oldest child, wanting to go through all the boxes of clothing we had collected for them so he could dress like Canadian kids. Shadi, the father, was on his cellphone talking to family in Lebanon and Syria to let them know they had arrived safely and that all was good. Only two of the children spoke some English so the first day was quiet, but everyone was happy and excited.
Q. What lasting bonds have been made with the family?
Cathy: Both families have been here for more than two years and they have become our extended family. We speak to them on the phone or visit at least once a week. We developed a friendship so phone calls and visits are not just when they have a problem and need help. We have shared many meals and lots of laughter. We have watched their kids grow up. Siryana is the youngest child of the first family and she was so quiet and shy when they arrived and now she is this beautiful, confident young girl with an amazing smile and a circle of friends.
Q. How rewarding was it to help a Syrian family?
Cathy: They taught me a lot about real joy and perseverance. They arrived here with a few suitcases but they had each other and they were safe and they were so happy and they continue to be that way. It is a wonderful feeling to see them thriving and know that you played a small part in that.
Q. What advice would you give to a group that is sponsoring for the first time?
Cathy: I think the most important thing is to be prepared (and to want) to spend a lot of time with them. Not just the time it takes to fill out the forms for OHIP cards or to open a bank account or to drive them to language assessments and other appointments, but time to just visit. Help them to feel a part of the community, of your parish and your family.