Edmonton welcomes Syrian refugees
‘I feel like I have come back to life again’
Photograph by: Bruce Edwards , Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON – Tears, kisses and embraces greeted a Syrian family in the arrivals area at Edmonton International Airport.
The scene evoked the tenderness and joy of a family reunion, but not everyone gathered knew Mohamed Al Masalmi, his wife Hala Al Dajani or their five children. Many were strangers, Christian and Muslim, who had simply come to welcome them Tuesday night to their new lives in Canada.
The family had arrived from Syria, by way of neighbouring Arab countries and the work of two local groups that forged a partnership to ensure refugees from one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters can make a home in Edmonton.
“I feel like I have come back to life again,” Al Masalmi said through a translator, while members of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association and the Mennonite Central Committee looked on.
His youngest son, age five, buried his face in his mother’s skirt.
It was the children who made the arrival so emotional, said Huda Mawed, a distant relative of the family.
“It’s just nice to see them safe and out of harm,” a teary Mawed said.
The Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. It has left almost four million people as refugees. The Mennonite Central Committee in Alberta, which has a decades-long tradition of privately sponsoring refugees, wanted to assist the families affected by the catastrophic civil war.
Through community connections, the Mennonite group partnered with Islamic Family and Social Services Association, or IFSSA, to find families to sponsor. The Mennonite organization holds a refugee sponsorship arrangement with the federal government.
“The missing piece from IFSSA is they have no sponsorship arrangement with the government,” said Donna Entz, with the Mennonite Church of Alberta. The Mennonite Central Committee “is ultimately responsible, because we signed the papers, but there’s been a memo of understanding between IFSSA and us that (they) are responsible for the settlement, providing the housing for the year and helping find them a job.”
Entz spent most of her adult life with the Mennonite Church in Burkina Faso in Africa and returned to Canada in 2010.
Ayub Umarji, board member with IFSSA, said helping bring Syrian families to Edmonton has made people compassionate.
“People are desensitized” from what they have seen on TV. “They can’t comprehend, did this really happen? Is this really there? It’s almost like a block, ‘Should we help them? Do they really need help or is this just part of life?’ It’s almost taken as if it’s a norm, but it’s not a norm.”
Umarji said working with the Mennonite group has been “amazing,” that it has “gone above and beyond.”
The praise goes both ways. After an hour of chatter, the Al Masalmi and Al Dajani family head to the house that has been rented for them. A celebration and a feast awaited anyone who wanted to join them.
SYRIAN REFUGEES: BY THE NUMBERS
Four million: Number of Syrian refugees.
1,166: Number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada since 2011, as of Jan. 15, the Canadian Council of Refugees says.
1,317: Number of Syrian refugees who have been approved for re-settlement in Canada since 2011, as of Jan. 15.
10,000: Number of Syrian refugees Canada has pledged to accept between 2015 and 2018.