‘Our family is here’

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A Hutterite woman chronicles the arrival of Syrian refugees

Elaine Hofer |

Elaine Hofer and Paul Waldner are members of Green Acres Colony, near Wawanesa, Man. Their Hutterite colony, along with Enes and Fata Muheljic from Wawanesa, worked with Mennonite Central Committee Canada to sponsor a family from Syria. Hofer writes in her journal about the day they met Reyad Alhamoud, Najwa Hussein Al Mohamad and their two children at the Winnipeg airport on Feb. 18.

We try to imagine how it will be to travel home from Winnipeg, a two-and-a-half-hour trip, with a family of four who don’t speak our language!  We’re a bit apprehensive, but hopeful that our hand gestures will help.

We stand waiting and my dad texts me that the flight we’re waiting for is just over Steinbach. We look at each other like Kindergarten children, not willing to risk that long waterslide. How do we suitably greet these exceptional people? We stand together, four people with one big heartbeat of emotion. Enes and his wife were refugees; Paul and my relatives from even longer ago were refugees, also.

While we stand there with our signs, teddy bears and Fata’s thoughtful mini-rose bush, people come up to us and greet us: “Are you welcoming new Canadians? Well you just made my day!”

Another lady approaches us and asks if we’d be offended if she could donate money to help our family. When we assure her that would be wonderful, she offers us an envelope with $200. A lady from a Mennonite church in Winnipeg excitedly realizes who we’re waiting for and says she is awaiting a family identical to ours. She offers to be an interpreter if we need her.

*  *  * 

We stand and wait. Finally, a young family with two children in bright yellow coats! Oops, there’s another family in red coats, also with two small children. Which one is ours? We shuffle and hold on to our signs and teddy bears to help us grasp the moment.

Paul urges me to capture moments with my camera. But I am worried that they might be offended. They don’t know me and there they stand, looking so vulnerable and afraid.  

Enes firmly and confidently reaches out his hand in greeting to Reyad. And Fata, in a completely natural gesture, kisses Najwa on her cheeks a few times. I follow suit, but I am not as graceful as Fata, as it is a ritual unfamiliar to me.

Reyad and Najwa look very, very scared. Reyad quickly expresses his fear about us not knowing their language. Our interpreter is able to reassure him that we had a computer app that would translate Arabic to English. It suddenly became a lifeline, and then he was able to smile.

*  *  *

We were safe and close in our old Nellie van, away from the airport. I somehow thought that soft seats and the warm heater blowing would soften some of the utterly frightened feelings they must have had. It was very cold outside. And I wished it weren’t so dark; in the dark everything is magnified. Who did they leave behind? What had their lives been like up until now? How long did they wait for this?

We quickly pick up on Najwa’s determination. And it fascinates and reassures me. She wants to know if we’re married and how many children we have. She wants to know all about us, and she laughs when we are puzzled by her curiosity. Fata and I relish her laughter.

Paul drives and he and Enes make plans for the next couple days of accommodating and supporting the family. The interpreter helps us along, and they nod thankfully over and over as we explain how long the ride home is, and where they will be staying. Fata tells the interpreter, ‘Please, reassure them they are safe with us.’

We get home to Fata and Enes’s home at 12 a.m. The children, Raghad, 4, and Ali, 3, lie sprawled like snow angels, bundled up in snowsuits fast asleep on the couches. We look at each other. We’re here, this is really happening. Our family is here!  

*  *  *

We say good night to our refugee family. Simple words feel good, and Najwa replies “good night” to us in English. I could have said it 10 times. It was a gesture we could give and receive. A way of sharing and receiving love and caring—our calling here in this world.

This has been incredible. It’s been about vulnerability, trust and communication. It’s about taking risks, and daring to love and serve. It’s about risking trust and daring to receive love. Es ist wunderbar!

See more stories on welcoming refugees: 
Winnipeg churches throw wedding party for Syrian refugee couple
Welcome to Canada . . . because of Jesus
Syrian refugees: A sponsorship story

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