After welcoming us into her new home, Suad Saidam promptly excuses herself, re-emerging with ice-cold water bottles on a silver tray. In Arab cultures, guests are always served refreshments in this way, one of the many hallmarks of their unending hospitality.
Suad, her husband Mamdoh, and their four children, Tabarak, 12, Ali, 11, Assal, 10, and Yuseef, 6, have only been in Canada for four months, but they’re working hard to make a life for themselves in Cambridge, Ont., having arrived in this country through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario’s refugee sponsorship program and the efforts of Wanner, Breslau and Preston Mennonite churches in southern Ontario.
The Saidams are quick to express their gratefulness and joy at their new lives in Canada, frequently punctuating their narratives with el-Hamdallah (“Praise be to God”).
Translator Noha Abdul Ghaffar explains that the name of their refugee camp on the Iraq/Syria border, Al Hol, translates roughly as “the nightmare.” The family spent five years there after fleeing their native Iraq, when violence erupted between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.
Referring to that time, Suad explains, “Every time someone left the house, whether it was Mamdoh going to work or Tabarak to school, I assumed I would never see them alive again.”
The whole family witnessed scenes of torture, and Suad’s cousin was killed because he was Sunni. When a classmate of Tabarak’s was kidnapped and murdered because she, too, was Sunni, the Saidams decided they had had enough.
The family first tried to escape into Jordan, but they had no citizenship. Although both Suad and Mamdoh were born and raised in Iraq, as were their parents before them, their grandparents came to Iraq from Palestine, which made their entire family ineligible for citizenship. Jordan, not wanting to encourage Palestinian refugees, would not accept them. The family, along with several other Iraqi Palestinians, could do nothing but literally sit in the desert for two months with almost no resources.
Mamdoh explains that for the first two days they had no food or water, and they were worried about their children. The men built a circle with suitcases and used their coats as a roof to provide some protection from the heat for the women and children. Finally, the United Nations brought rations, and eventually moved them to Al Hol.
With neither Iraq nor Syria willing to claim them, Palestinian Iraqi refugees are stranded on an isolated stretch of desert. This isolation had devastating effects for the Saidams, who lost a newborn daughter, Gazal, when they didn’t have access to a hospital.
Adjusting to a new language and culture isn’t easy. They struggle with loneliness, and Suad particularly misses her mother, who fled to Cyprus and is unwell. “Every time I speak to her she tells me she is afraid she will die before I can see her,” Suad says. “I am trying very hard to find a sponsor for her, but it isn’t easy.”
Despite their troubles, Mamdoh says his greatest joy in Canada is how bright the future looks for his children. Suad agrees, and mentions the joy she finds in the people who have helped them.
Sponsored by the three Mennonite congregations, the Saidams appreciate that “the Mennonites are very respectful of us and our culture.” Mamdoh says of the MCC Private Sponsorship Program, it is “the best way. At every step we have been taken care of and supported.”
Christina Edmiston, a member of Wanner’s sponsorship committee, feels strongly that the sponsorship program is a two-way street. “I absolutely do not think that this is just us giving to them,” she says. “We have been so blessed from their friendship. They have taught us a lot about our priorities with regard to time, family, etc.”
‘Surely this was the work of God’
Johanna Dyck agrees with Edmiston’s assessment. Her church, Kitchener Mennonite Brethren, Ont., sponsored the Avalos family from El Salvador in 1990. “We used to have potlucks, because that ensured there was something for the family to eat that was familiar,” she says, adding, “and, of course, that meant we got to eat their delicious food, too!”
Dyck recalls meeting Marina and Antonio Avalos, along with their children, Ricardo, Ana and Willmer, at the airport when they arrived in March of 1990. “It was a very cold day, and they were all dressed for the tropical climate they had come from, with bare feet and sandals,” she says. “Fortunately, there were snow suits for them to change into. But their hotel room wasn’t ready, so we had to sit in a cold basement room with them until about 2 a.m.”
While they sat together, the family and their sponsors got acquainted. As it turned out, Antonio had become good friends with MCC workers in the refugee camp in El Salvador, where they lived for most of the 1980s. These MCC workers had suggested they find a Mennonite church to attend once they arrived in Canada. They were very moved that, of all the sponsors and new arrivals in this group, they had been matched with the only Mennonite church involved.
“Coincidence?” Dyck wonders.
“No, surely this was the work of God,” she quickly adds.
Like most new Canadians, the Avalos family struggled with language. This provided a memorable time for Dyck, when Marina went into labour in the middle of the night. Dyck rushed to the house of their translator to take her to the hospital, but couldn’t get a response with the doorbell or by knocking. She ended up climbing through the bushes to pound on the windows and yelled until she succeeded.
Over the past 20 years, the Avalos family has remained closely connected with Kitchener MB, and continues to express its deep appreciation to MCC and the congregation for all of their support. This has included the birth of a fifth child, and the arrival of Antonio’s oldest daughter, who he had believed was dead.
Early refugee works hard to succeed
Family reunions are one of the greatest joys of the MCC private sponsorship program.
Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, Lo Chiang Cheng’s family came to Canada from Cambodia in 1979, when she was seven years old. The family—including her parents Tak Chhing Cheng and Khantry Chin, and two younger sisters, Lo Mey, 3, and Lo Sing, 1—were soon joined by Tak Chhing’s uncle and his family, reuniting cousins that had grown up together as siblings. After that, Tak Chhing’s sisters and brothers were sponsored in Ottawa, so the Chengs moved from Orillia, Ont., to be near them.
Coming as a child, Lo Chiang is the embodiment of new arrival Mamdoh’s hopes for his children. With a master of business administration degree from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., Lo Chiang works in management for the federal government.
“My parents viewed this as a second chance, and drilled it into us to work hard, so we would never have to start from scratch again,” Lo Chiang says.
Both parents led by example, with Tak Chhing eventually opening his own construction company.
Like Yuseef, the youngest member of the Saidam family, Lo Chiang was too young to remember her life in Cambodia before the Buriram Refugee Camp in Thailand, where her family spent two years. She remembers the challenges of life in the camp, though, particularly never having enough food.
She recalls with a laugh how, when anyone in Canada would give her or her sisters something to eat, they would hide it to save for later. When asked to reflect on her joys of growing up in Canada, she immediately exclaims, “Not being hungry! And feeling safe. Also, having a lot of support. The church [Christian Fellowship Chapel, Orillia, Ont.] was always there for us.”
When some local kids started bullying Lo Chiang and Lo Mey, the church immediately stepped in.
“One of the sponsors’ daughters started walking us to school and [the church] talked to the teachers,” she says.
Lo Chiang became close with another little girl, who remains a good friend, saying, “My sisters and I were much smaller than we should have been for our age, and I just remember her taking care of me, and protecting me.”
Hilda Gowanlock, one of the church sponsors, remembers just how malnourished the children were. “One night, while my husband took the parents to an ESL [English as a second language] class, I babysat the girls,” she says. “They were a little afraid, so I decided to lie on the bed with them to make them feel more secure. The baby was so emaciated she couldn’t even sit up on her own. I was so worried that she wouldn’t make it. But she did!”
Seeking to reconnect with refugees
It was people such as the Chengs that brought the MCC sponsorship program into being in the first place. In the 1970s, images of the humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia prompted an outcry that resulted in the sponsorship of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe, Australia and North America. In Canada, MCC signed an agreement with the federal government constituting the first ever Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
To this day, Canada is the only country in the world that allows private sponsorships. Churches, individuals and even small businesses have responded by the thousands, sponsoring more than 50,000 refugees through MCC to date. With a number that large, it is important to remember that every one of these “refugees” is a person who has a life beyond their traumatic ordeals. They have their own hopes, dreams and memories, and each has a story to tell.
People often forget how much these new Canadians enrich and contribute to this country. That’s why MCC Ontario is seeking to re-connect with former refugees who have come through its sponsorship program, believing that having former refugees become more involved in the work of MCC Ontario will provide invaluable new insight for its programs, particularly the sponsorship program.
Reflecting on her involvement with the Avalos family, Dyck explains that her interest in sponsorship is the result of her own experience, having come to Canada from Russia with her mother in the 1920s, when she was five. This was at the same time that MCC was founded as a response to Mennonites in Russia and Ukraine who were suffering from persecution and famine. While most of MCC’s work at the time involved material aid, it also helped settle thousands of these people in Canada and the U.S.
Seventy years later, Dyck “paid it forward,” as her church helped to sponsor a family that came through the MCC private sponsorship program that came into being as a result of people like Lo Chiang Cheng and her family.
For more information, or to become involved, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free 1-800-313-6226.