Photographed above: HSAA member Ayed Saad enjoys a Canadian experience – Tim Hortons.
“A smile is the shortest distance between two people.”
Victor Borge, 1909-2000, Danish and American musician and humorist. He was also a refugee from war. As a Danish Jew, he fled when the Germans invaded Denmark. He arrived in the U.S. with only $20.
Smiles may be the furthest thing from our minds when we think of Syrian refugees fleeing from war, but they may prove to be the key to their future.
The value of smiles were a common theme in three interviews with people prominent in HSAA bringing a family of four from Lebanon to start a new, safe life in Calgary.
When asked if Calgary and Canada would be the right place for the family, HSAA member Ayed Saad said: “I always say to myself it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, coming and living in Canada and being a proud Canadian. It’s a country that represents the values I have … everywhere you go, people smile at you, they want to help you … and you feel safe.”
Saad speaks from personal experience.
“I was a refugee for 18 years. I was born in a refugee camp.
“My father was displaced from his homeland and during the displacement and war (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war) he lost his parents and his brother and sister. It was a catastrophe. I lived in a refugee camp 18 years. I know how difficult it is every day.”
Sam Nammoura, co-founder of the Syrian Refugees Support Group in Calgary, had some advice for Canadians dealing with refugees. When asked what they could do to help, he said: “Just welcome them with a smile, because a smile means so much.”
You can give money and donate things, “but if your face doesn’t say it, it’s irrelevant.”
Nammoura also knows what it’s like to be a newcomer. He came to the U.S. from Damascus in 1992 and five years later came to Calgary. In typical immigrant fashion, his first job in North America was washing dishes, but he went on to set up his own business in Calgary and expanded to Red Deer and Edmonton, employing 33 people at one point.
His grassroots volunteer group helped HSAA through the process of finding and sponsoring a refugee family. The group has created a network on which this and other refugee families can call on for help and guidance after their arrival.
Meanwhile, HSAA member Faika Satterthwaite said smiles would be how she measures the outcome of the union’s sponsorship.
“I will know when we go to visit them – if they are smiling, then we are succeeding.”
Satterthwaite and Saad led HSAA’s sponsorship efforts – the complex and sometimes frustrating process of finding an family and completing all the paperwork and bureaucratic procedures, followed by finding a suitable home and filling it with furniture.
“It has been extremely rewarding, but the paper process has been frustrating,” says Satterthwaite, a recreational therapist at Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital and a member of the HSAA board of directors and chair of the union’s Social Justice Committee. “We got everything lined up in terms of our application, our dollar commitments from the union. You hurry up and get all this done and then you wait and you wait and you wait.”
HSAA could have just written a cheque, made a donation to a charity that helps refugees, but the committee and the board decided it was better to get directly involved, to do the work.
It did so because the core value of HSAA is taking care of its members and society, says Saad, a laboratory technologist at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary and also member of the Social Justice Committee. This sponsorship is the same thing.\
Satterthwaite says that HSAA members are health-care professionals. The sponsorship “is a natural extension of what HSAA members do (at work), saving lives and promoting wellness.”
The union has approved spending $27,000 from its Humanitarian Fund on the sponsorship, she says. HSAA set aside funds for international relief, as well as for local and national relief. The money for sponsorship comes from the international funds, so will not take away from support provided for local assistance.
Why did Satterthwaite and Saad feel moved to volunteer so much time and effort for this?
Satterthwaite recalls what inspired her to get involved. Originally from Turkey, she received a photo from a friend vacationing on a Turkish beach.
“The very next day I received a message from her saying: ‘Oh my God, you will not believe this tragedy.’ She sent me another snapshot of the picture of the little boy who got washed up to the shores.”
That was the image that shook the world – the photo of a drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee called Alan Kurdi whose body washed ashore on the same beach.
“That triggered intense emotions … I felt I’ve got to do something. But as an individual, what can I do? It’s very personal when you’ve seen something and it’s part of the world you know.”
She also knows what it’s like to come to come to live in a new country where you don’t speak the language or know the culture. She arrived as a student at the age of 19 who didn’t speak a word of English.
She knows and has overcome some of the obstacles the family will face.
When the idea of HSAA sponsoring a family was brought to the Social Justice Committee by then vice-president (now president) Mike Parker, she stepped up.
For Saad, growing up in a refugee camp and his experience since inspired him to help others. “I personally think the more you help people, the better your chances of surviving,” he says.
Bringing this family here means everybody wins – the family wins because it has a better and safer future; our community wins because it gets a family that will become productive and contributing members of society; and HSAA members win because they get to understand more about the plight of refugees.
Now that the family is here, beginning their new lives in Calgary, what comes next? Will there be culture shock? How will they adapt?
It will take them time to adjust, says Saad, who went through this when he came to North America, first as a Fulbright scholar to take a Master’s degree in environmental science, and later to Canada.
“In the first three months I was in United States … every time I had to go outside I would take my ID because I had that thought that if you don’t have your ID, then you could be stopped by police … Then you would be jailed … Every time I left home … I’m not sure whether I going to come back or not, whether I’ll be shot or whether I’ll be in jail … It took me three months to realize that I am living in a country where freedom is the main priority,” he says. “For two years I was completely stressed and got mad every time I could see a fence.”
Fences in the refugee settlement where he grew up were symbols of oppression – meant to keep people like him out of places.
The Syrian family faces the challenges of learning English, finding a school for the older of their children, learning how to get around in a big city, learning about our health-care system and coping with the cold weather – there’s a lot to learn and it needs to be learned quickly.
That’s why it’s important that HSAA and others continue to provide assistance. Saad and Satterthwaite have formed a relationship, a bond with the family that means they will continue to offer support.
“I call him (the father of the family) my little brother. I tell him: ‘Don’t worry, when you come here … This relationship has become more than being a sponsor, it is friendship, brotherhood and as much as I can I will support you.’ ”
Nammoura and the team of volunteers at the Syrian Refugees Support Group are also going to be on hand to help out. The group was born from activists on Facebook offering help to refugees and grew into the larger organization it is today. (For more information, please visit http://www.yycsyr.ca/.)
The group helps Canadians interact with refugees and guides them in how to best offer help. It also tries to ease the integration of refugee families into Canadian society and prevent them from becoming isolated.
“When I came to North America, my friend hosted me in his house for three days. On the fourth day, I was working washing dishes. In his own way, he made it so simple for me … at least I found somebody to say hello, somebody to explain to me, somebody … to help me find a job. And I always feel in debt for that person,” he says.
“Whatever I do (now), I say you know what, one day 20 some years ago this guy did for me and I feel like this is my way (of paying) back.”
This is what happens when you help someone – you create a desire in them to help others. In a few years’ time, who knows how much the members of our sponsored family will be helping others, who knows how much they’ll be giving to our society?
It will be fascinating to see what happens next.