For half of the year, tourism traffic in the Niagara region becomes quiet, and two rooms remain empty at Morningstar Cottage B & B. Denise Bradden, who owns and operates the bed and breakfast just south of St. Catharines, decided it was time to offer the beds to someone in need.
With the global refugee crisis becoming more severe, sponsoring a refugee family seemed like a natural choice for Denise. She brought her request to the local chapter for the Canadian Federation of University Women, where she serves as a member on the Social Action Committee.
“I had no idea where to go or how to start anything, not a clue,” she explained. “It’s just by talking to people that you get connections.” Those connections led her to MCC, where she spoke with staff at the St. Catharines office and started the process.
“It was just amazing how it all came together,” Denise said. The larger community rallied behind the cause, and more than 50% of the funds for the sponsorship came from outside of the CFUW. Sixteen people came forward to volunteer for everything from finding furniture to buying a condo for the family to live in.
The sponsorship forms were signed in January and by March, a young Syrian family of four - Rana, Mazan and their two daughters* - arrived in Toronto. Just as the CFUW finished moving all the furniture into the new home, they received a call that it was time to pick the family up at the airport.
For Rana and Mazan, the transition into Canadian life has not been without surprises, but what has encouraged them the most is the close relationships they have developed with the women in their sponsorship group.
“When we first came here we didn’t know anything about Canada,” Rana said, translated from Arabic. “We heard about other people’s experiences being sponsored, but we didn’t expect it to be like this.”
Their relationships with each other are self-described as becoming like family. They’ve held birthday parties for each other, had potlucks, and visited Niagara Falls together; Rana even presented the women with Mother’s Day gifts.
“We feel so comfortable, like they are our mothers. They understand what we need. They read our minds,” she said with a smile. “We are really happy. We feel like this is our home.”
While many of their family members remain in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, the relationships they have formed in Canada have eased their settlement process. It was just three years ago that Rana and Mazan received a call from a family member that their home had been bombed.
“We worked for this our whole life, to have our own house, and we lost everything. After the fighting, everything was destroyed,” explained Mazan.
Thankfully, they had fled Syria when warnings of the fighting emerged. With Rana full-term in her pregnancy, they had no choice but to seek safety for their family.
So they walked, step by step, to the Jordanian border. Imagine it – 9 months pregnant on a long journey travelled by foot, with little more than a few birth certificates and photos of home. Just ten days after crossing into Jordan, their first daughter was born. For three years they lived in Jordan, unable to work legally or find stability.
But then, they received notification they would be sponsored to Canada.
“They made this huge leap and didn’t really know what they were coming to. To see the way they settle in, they are doing very well.”
Denise continued, “That’s the most rewarding thing, when we think what they’ve gone through and what they are doing now.”
“It’s not easy to learn a new culture, new people, everything is different,” Rana reflected.
“Every day we are thinking about our situation, but now we are ok, I’m doing my best to learn the language. I have to find a job and I have to work for myself and my family,” said Mazan, who hopes to continue working as a painter.
When asked if she would recommend sponsoring to others, Denise replied with a vibrant: “Yes, absolutely. Who would have thought eight months ago all this would have happened? It’s mind boggling.”
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.