One frigid day in February, Kerry McLorg drove to a Toronto hotel to pick up a family of Syrian refugees. She had never spoken to the people who were about to move into her basement.
“I don’t know if they even know we exist,” she said.
At the hotel, Abdullah Mohammad’s room phone rang, and an interpreter told him to go downstairs. His sponsors had come, he was told. He had no idea what that meant.
Canada allows ordinary citizens a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle-essentially adopt-a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members.
For one year, McLorg and her group would provide financial and practical support to the Mohammads, from subsidizing food and rent to supplying clothes to helping them learn English and find work. She and her partners had already raised more than $30,000, selected an apartment, talked to the local school and found a nearby mosque.
McLorg, the mother of two teenagers, made her way through the hotel lobby. Another member of the group clutched a welcome sign written in Arabic. When the Mohammads appeared, McLorg took in the people standing before her. Abdullah looked older than his 35 years. His wife, Eman, was unreadable, wearing a flowing niqab that obscured her face except for a narrow slot for her eyes. Their four children, all under 10, wore donated parkas with the tags still on.
For the Mohammads, who had been in Canada less than 48 hours, the signals were even harder to read. In Syria, Abdullah Mohammad had worked in his family’s grocery stores and Eman had been a nurse, but after three years of barely hanging on in Jordan, they were not used to being wanted or welcomed. “What do these people want in return?” Mohammad wondered to himself.
Much of the world is reacting to the refugee crisis-21 million displaced from their countries, nearly five million of them Syrian-with hesitation or hostility. Greece shipped desperate migrants back to Turkey; Denmark confiscated their valuables; and even Germany, which has accepted more than half a million
refugees, is struggling with growing resistance to them.
In the United States, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, called for temporary bans on all Muslims from entering the country and recently warned that Syrian refugees would cause “big problems in the future.” The Obama administration promised to take in 10,000 Syrians by September 30 but by mid-July
had admitted slightly more than half that many.
Just across the border, however, Canadians felt called to action by the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up last autumn on a Turkish beach.
The Toronto Star greeted the first planeload by splashing “Welcome to Canada” in English and Arabic across its front page. Eager sponsors toured local Middle Eastern supermarkets to learn what to buy and cook and used a toll-free hotline for instant Arabic translation. The new government committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees and then raised the total by tens of thousands.
“I can’t provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them,” John McCallum, the country’s immigration minister, said.
In the ideal version of private sponsorship, the groups become concierges and surrogate family members who help integrate the outsiders. The hope is that the Syrians will form bonds with those unlike them, from gay sponsors to business owners who will help them find jobs. McLorg’s group of neighbors and friends includes doctors, economists, a lawyer, an artist, teachers and a bookkeeper.
Advocates for sponsorship believe that private citizens can achieve more than the government alone, guiding newcomers more effectively and potentially helping solve the puzzle of how best to resettle Muslims in Western countries. (Slightly fewer than half of the Syrian refugees who recently arrived in Canada have private
sponsors. The rest are resettled by the government.)
The fear is that all of this effort could end badly, with the Canadians looking naïve.
The Syrians are screened, and many sponsors and refugees take offense at the notion that they could be dangerous, saying they are often victims of terrorism themselves. But American officials point out that it is very difficult to track activity in the chaotic
Syrian war. Several Islamic State members involved in the 2015 Paris attacks arrived on Europe’s shores from Syria posing as refugees.
Many of the refugees face steep paths to integration, with no money of their own and uncertain employment prospects. A significant number are illiterate in Arabic, which makes learning English a titanic task. No one knows how refugees will navigate the currents of longing, trauma, dependence or resentment they may feel.
And volunteers cannot fully anticipate what they may confront-clashing expectations of whether Syrian women should work, tensions over how money is spent, families that are still dependent when the year is up, disagreements within sponsor groups.
Still, by mid-April, the Mohammads had a downtown apartment with a pristine kitchen, bikes for the children, and a Canadian flag taped to their window. Abdullah studied the neighborhood’s supermarkets, and Eman took a counseling course so she could help other refugees.
Abdullah Mohammad searched for the right words to describe what the sponsors had done for him. “It’s like I’ve been on fire, and now I’m safe in the water,” he said.
One April morning, Liz Stark, the grandmother in chief of another sponsor group, could not find Mouhamad Ahmed after Wissam, his wife, went into in labor with their fifth child.
The couple had spent years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, their three children never attending school
because tuition was too expensive. Wissam became pregnant there with their fourth child, but labor was troubled and the girl lived only six hours.
“I was thinking maybe the same thing will happen to me here as well,” she said.
A United Nations agency referred the family to Canadian officials who interviewed and screened them, then passed their file to a new nonprofit dedicated to matching Syrians with private sponsors.
When Stark finally found Ahmed, who had been playing soccer, unaware of what was happening, she ushered him to the hospital room, where he held his wife’s hand.
Suddenly a medical team rushed her away, saying the umbilical cord was in a dangerous position and she needed an emergency cesarean section. Wissam, terrified, asked her husband to take care of their children if she did not survive. Ahmed collapsed, sobbing.
When a nurse finally appeared to say the newborn was healthy, Ahmed was jubilant. He called his father in Syria and let him choose a name: Julia, the family’s first Canadian citizen.
Once the infant was home, she went from being the Ahmed family member the sponsors worried about most to the one they fretted about least. She would grow up hearing English, going to Canadian preschool and beyond. For her siblings-10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and an 8-year-old brother-the sponsors found a program for children who had never been to school. Their father, who was a farmer in Syria, worked on learning enough English to find a job.
Everyone was on a deadline: After one year, the sponsors’ obligation ends, and the families are expected to become self-sufficient.
Stark was optimistic because she had lived through other versions of this story. Almost four decades ago, as a young geography teacher, she joined in the first mass wave of Canadian private sponsorship, in which citizens resettled tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Hmong. She helped sponsor three Vietnamese brothers and a Cambodian family, later attending their weddings and celebrating the births of their children. Now some former Southeast Asian refugees are completing the cycle by sponsoring Syrians.
Stark believes that her country is especially suited to resettling refugees, with its vast size, strong social welfare system, and a government that emphasizes multiculturalism. Canada has not endured acts of terrorism like the September 11 hijackings or the Paris attacks. And with a tenth of the population of the United States, Canada is hungry for migrants.
“Canada is an accident of geography and history,” said Senator Ratna Omidvar, who co-founded Lifeline Syria, a group that matches Syrians with sponsors.
Opposition to the influx has been relatively muted. The Conservative Party argues that the country is taking in more refugees than it can provide for, but supports accepting Syrians. A few incidents targeting Syrians-graffiti reading “Syrians go home and die” at a Calgary school, a pepper spray attack at an event welcoming refugees-drew widespread condemnation.
One May evening, three weeks after Julia’s birth, Stark stopped by the Ahmeds’ apartment and cradled the baby. The sponsors were planning a party to welcome her the Syrian way, by feasting on a newly slaughtered lamb on her 40th day. Meanwhile, Mouhamad Ahmed had adopted a new custom: He sometimes brought his wife breakfast in bed and got the children ready. “When I came here, I saw men just doing everything that women do in Syria,” he said.
“And I thought, yeah, of course, I will do the same.”
English words were starting to emerge from the older children’s mouths, but the sponsors and the adult refugees could barely understand one another without help.
Wissam, who had a first-grade education and was not attending English classes because she was home with a newborn, said that not being able to communicate was painful.
“Sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind,” she said, because she felt so close to the sponsors but could
not even tell them little things about the baby.
Still, some groups faced greater challenges. Some Syrians have backed out before traveling to Canada, intimidated by the geographic and cultural leap. Others were shocked to discover that their sponsors were posting Facebook messages and blog entries about them that strangers could read.
Even when sponsors and refugees become enmeshed in one another’s lives, they do not fully know one another. Not every family is open about its history. (The Ahmeds and the Mohammads asked not to be identified by their full surnames, and were reluctant to share details of their experiences in Syria because they feared reprisals against relatives still there.)
Few issues are as delicate as how hard the sponsors should push and when the refugees can say no. Should the Syrians live close to sponsors or in neighborhoods with more Middle Easterners-and is it right for sponsors to decide without consulting them? The Canadians raise tens of thousands of dollars for each
newcomer family; who controls how it is spent?
Some worry that sponsors are overpowering the refugees with the force of their enthusiasm. Kamal
Al-Solaylee, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who is originally from Yemen, said he had noticed a patronizing tone, as when some sponsors highlighted their volunteering on social media. “The white savior narrative comes into play,” he said.
Three months after the Mohammads’ awkward first meeting with the Kerry McLorg and the other sponsors, they had settled into Canada faster than anyone had expected.
They went on a picnic to Niagara Falls. The girls won student-of-the-month honors. Bayan, the eldest, who had whipped past the boys she raced on Jordanian streets, was now beating runners from schools across the city.
Still, there was some culture shock. When Mohammad took the children to a pool, he encountered a woman in a string bikini. “I ran away,” he said later. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
The most energetic member of the sponsor group, an artist named Susan Stewart, became consumed with helping Mohammad find a job. She drove him to a job fair for refugees, where they struck up a conversation with a Syrian supermarket owner and his Arabic-speaking partner. After they invited Mohammad for an interview, Stewart fashioned a résumé from a questionnaire she had helped him fill out.
When Mohammad was offered the part-time position, the sponsors were thrilled. But a few days later, he called one of the sponsors who speaks Arabic to say he would turn it down. He wanted to consider options, such as becoming a mechanic. In Syria or Jordan, he had never had freedom to choose his work. “It’s always what you have to do to earn a living rather than what you really want to do,” he said later.
He had been annoyed at Stewart for pressing so hard, he said, but mostly he was embarrassed to pass on the job after she had done so much.
But McLorg saw a plus side: Mohammad was starting to navigate his own path in Canada.
In mid-May, she shared news of her own with the sponsors and the Mohammads: She had breast cancer. Now that she was facing surgery, the Syrians were the ones who were checking on her.
They made cards and bead necklaces and brought fruit and flowers; the other sponsors, now practiced in the logistics of caring, offered meal deliveries and other assistance. “I had no intention of building my own support group, but I have one now,” McLorg, who is now cancer-free, said.
The New York Times (July 1, 2016), © 2016 by The New York Times Co., nytimes.com