As Bashar Dardar listened carefully to a voice recording on his cell phone, his eyes grew somber. The message was sent from one of his sisters, who still lives in Syria. Her situation is grim, he explained, translated from Arabic. There is no food or electricity. They are surviving by eating tree leaves. His nephew has already died of starvation. His aunt and uncle were recently killed in a rocket attack, after the house collapsed while they were inside.
With the collapsed communications infrastructure, phone calls are not an option. Text messages and the occasional voice message are what they have grown accustomed to.
Before war erupted, Bashar’s family members were settled in Syria. Now, they are all scattered through out the Middle East.
“We are not grieving that the money is gone, that property is gone,” Bashar explained. “We are not grieving over that.”
“One third of the people we know are dead,” his mother, Afiffa said, who has not seen her daughters in five years. “We aren’t grieving over anything except that people are dying.”
It was just six months prior that their own lives were in limbo, residing in Lebanon after fleeing Syria to escape the war. But now, Bashar, his mother Afiffa, wife Wafaa, and three children reside peacefully in St. Catharines after being sponsored by The First Mennonite Church, the oldest Mennonite church in Canada.
The faith community was in transition when they decided to sponsor the family: their elevator was broken and they were looking for a new pastor. With a long history of refugee support, they decided to go ahead with the sponsorship, and ask the wider community for support too.
A fundraising concert was scheduled, and advertised in the local newspaper. “Syrian refugees were everywhere in the news. People started to call our church saying they wanted to help,” said Joanne Friesen, a member of the sponsorship team. “I made a list online of things we needed and people in the community were dropping off dishes and towels.”
Surprisingly, the financial goal was met before the fundraiser even took place. They decided to go ahead with the evening of music and food anyway, ensuring the money would go toward Syrian refugee support. And just five months after the sponsorship committee had been formed, the family was welcomed to Canada, just days before the fundraiser.
The family was able to attend the fundraiser, as a warm welcome to their new home. The evening featured a coffee house, the Deacons of Jazz playing music, and desserts.
“To this day, they still talk about getting introduced to everyone onstage. To them it was amazing that all these people would welcome them,” said Joanne.
“I feel very blessed. I am extremely grateful we were chosen to come here,” said Bashar. “It is a good place for refugees to be. I really like the quiet, the peacefulness. We feel very safe here.”
Their two boys have joined a local soccer league, where they have been able to play the game on grass, with a coach and goal posts for the first time in their lives.
“In Syria, they were too young to play,” said their father Bashar. “By the time they knew what soccer was, they just had a field of dirt.”
Members of the sponsorship group head out to the soccer games weekly to watch the boys play.
“I feel most alive in life when I’m involved in something like this,” explained Randy, another member of the sponsorship group. “It’s been so easy in the sense that they are just so thankful. It’s never really a chore to do it.”
“They are very hospitable people,” he continued. “That’s just who they are. They’ve been adding extra couches to their place because they want to have room for more people.”
“I’m totally amazed how this family has made their own connections,” said Joanne.
The guests they’ve welcomed aren’t just neighbours and friends, even the mayor of St. Catharines has made his way over to their home.
The group has taken them everywhere from swimming at an indoor waterpark in Niagara Falls to exploring a farm and seeing chickens. Often though, their visits are much more simple: practicing English, drawing pictures. Sometimes, they don’t even talk much because of the language barrier, but just enjoy being in each others presence.
“The language is the hardest thing for us,” Bashar explained. “My children can grow up learning here, so it will be a lot easier for them.”
Bashar and his family are looking forward to their future here. The adults are attending English classes through the school year, and children are all enrolled in school.
“I am going to try and start over. I want to find a new job,” he explained. In Syria, he worked with making furniture, but stresses he needs to learn English first. “For the time being I hope to get my driver’s license or I’ll get a part-time job.”
Their goals may be modest, but the sponsors are confident their future is bright.
“I see them being successful in Canada,” explained Randy. “It’s going to be hard obviously, but it’s going to work out. Of course they’ve had great support, but [they] have made it all work.”’