Joanne M.C. Lalonde first met Rasha* when she came to a panel discussion on refugee and sponsorship experiences that Joanne moderated at the Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC). Rasha had been looking for private sponsorship for her brother and his family and came prepared with a file folder of their story and horrifying cell phone updates on the war in Syria.
The Refugee Assistance Program committee from OMC (including Joanne), agreed to take on the private sponsorship of Rasha’s brother and his family. Many long months of paperwork and preparation later, the tired family arrived, descending the escalator at the Ottawa Airport to be joyfully greeted by the support group – and of course Rasha and her family! After their arrival, she housed everyone in her small two bedroom apartment until she found the family an apartment nearby. She acted as a translator as the sponsor group worked through the layers of bureaucracy and generally acted as an advocate for them as they negotiated the first few months of being in Canada. Rasha also used her contacts in the community to help her brother Ghaith find employment. This family’s adaptation to life in Canada was so successful that when, in preparation for the end of the sponsored year, the support group to help them transition to Ontario Works support, Ghaith was already working fulltime (and taking ESL classes) and did not need to apply for this program!
However, as often happens with sponsored families, the story does not end there. Ghaith’s wife, while so grateful for a safe life in Canada, ached for her widowed mother and her sisters who had suffered “unspeakable trauma” during the Syrian war and now experienced persecution in Lebanon.
Once again, Ottawa Mennonite Church together with Rasha and Ghaith, rallied to bring over the extended family. Fortunately for them, the timing coincided with the Liberal government’s expedited push for welcoming Syrian refugees – within six months, the entire family was reunited!
Since reuniting in Ottawa, the family has made a concerted and extremely generous effort to give back to the community and country that welcomed them.
This spring, at the end of the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, the walkers gathered at OMC for an evening of conversation and education preceded by a fellowship supper that included delicious Syrian tabbouleh, humus and salad all prepared in generous quantity by the family. Members of the family also exchanged gifts with the Indigenous leaders as a symbol of their shared commitment to human rights for all people.
Ottawa Mennonite Church photo/Eleanor Dyck
Members of the family also participated in an Amnesty International Panel that is working on piloting private sponsorship programs in other countries. They shared their stories and were interviewed in order to help design effective refugee programs for others around the world.
They have also been tireless supporters of the Ten Thousand Villages Festival Sale at OMC: working at the cash registers, helping with the Saturday Tea Room, and most impressively, catering a sold-out Syrian Supper for over 300 people with all proceeds going to the Ottawa Food Bank.
According to Joanne, “it was an amazing feat of organization and cooking talent that had the church buzzing with positive energy and the spirit of sharing - what a wonderful start to the sale thanks to this family!”
Two family members also agreed to be interviewed by CBC to discuss the importance of the Ottawa Food Bank. Not only are they working to raise money for the food bank through special events, the family is now advocating for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
Beginning with a chance meeting with one determined woman, Rasha, members of the Ottawa Mennonite Church sponsor group have seen what miracles can happen when compassion, generosity, and gratitude come together. This family, which survived the horrors of war and loneliness, is once again united and is now a shining example of Christian generosity of spirit, giving back so much to their adopted community, all the while learning a new alphabet, a new language, a new culture and helping their children flourish in their new home. “It is both humbling and gratifying to see them become the kind of citizens we need to create a better Canada for the future,” says Joanna. “I feel blessed that they have shared their journey with me.”
MCC is in urgent need of private sponsors – please consider lending a helping hand. For more info, visit mcco.ca/supporting-refugees
*names altered for privacy