The day that Zuhair and Batoul arrived in Toronto in September remains a blur in their memories. For the Syrian refugees and their three little boys, it had been an exhausting, exhilarating and somewhat terrifying day. It was the first time any of them had flown before and they spoke almost no English. Finally, after 13 hours of travelling, they were greeted by family and, somewhat bewilderingly, a group of people from Holy Blossom Temple.
The couple knew that a group of Jews had sponsored them, but they had no idea what to expect.
“There are no Jews in Aleppo; they left,” explains Zuhair, 38, who had been studying law in the city before the civil war started. (The couple’s last name is not being used because Zuhair is concerned for some of his family members who are still in Syria).
‘i didn’t imagine I will have friends who are Jewish people’
“We have houses for Jewish people, you have a Star (of David) in the door… but no people,” he explains.
What the couple knew of Jews came from television and it was far from flattering. “We imagine when we watch the news, we saw they are hard, the Jewish people, because they are always fighting,” says Batoul, 29.
Her impression has changed in the eight months since that first meeting.
“They are kind and nice people,” she says. “I didn’t imagine I will have friends who are Jewish people.”
The members of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple who showed up at the airport that fateful day have found the family a house and furnished it; taken them to the grocery store, the dentist and the doctor; enrolled their kids in school and showed them how to use public transit.
As the family’s official sponsor, Holy Blossom has a contract with the federal government to cover the costs for their first year in Canada, but the relationship has grown much deeper than a financial obligation. There have been invitations to Shabbat dinners and cottages, outings for the kids and moral support when Zuhair worried if he had made the right decision to leave his aged mother and brothers in Turkey to start a new life in Canada.
“Sometimes I look out and it’s all white,” he says, recalling his first winter in Canada. “Sometimes I feel frustrated and somebody encourages me. They tell me, ‘don’t give up.’”
Jim Shenkman nods knowingly as Zuhair speaks, sometimes confidently and sometimes haltingly, in English. Shenkman is one of the Holy Blossom members who has been offering Zuhair a hand as he adapts to this new country, its language and culture.
He now visits with the family weekly. He jokes with them and teaches them English when they search for a word, all while subtly giving them the support they’ll need to stand on their own in a few months. He is clearly fond of the couple and their exuberant boys, who bounce around the small, but immaculate house.
When Batoul mentions she made a new friend who came by to visit and encouraged her to set up savings accounts for the kids, he quietly warns, “she was selling to you. You have to be careful.”
Zuhair agrees that they wouldn’t proceed without first consulting their sponsors.
Shenkman first met the family after a call went out from the temple’s refugee committee, which was mainly staffed by women, for a man to visit the young family.
“Coming here is always fun. Zuhair and Batoul came up to our cottage and we had a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed helping to teach them English,” Shenkman says. “In the beginning, we used a lot of iPads (to translate words). We’ve talked about everything from politics, to religion, to war, to women working,” he says, looking at Batoul.
In the fall, when her youngest child starts full-day junior kindergarten, Batoul is eager to continue her education and eventually look for work. She says these are opportunities that would have been unthinkable if she had stayed in Syria.
“In my country, I can’t go alone to visit my parents, they live 100 metres (away). The people talk, talk, what is she wearing, how is the hijab,” says Batoul. “I want to mix and meet people. I want to experience Canada, to learn the culture.”
Zuhair, however, is on the fence about his wife’s career plans. As Shenkman gently probes why, Zuhair explains he is worried his children will suffer if their mother is not at home caring for them.
“I will work. In Toronto, they have a lot of work. If a man is a hard worker, he will find work,” he says confidently. But then he relents. “I can work hard, but if she wants to work, no problem. I told you, this is Canada.”
Through Holy Blossom’s connections, Zuhair has found a job doing landscaping, which he recently started, but Shenkman says that finding work is the missing piece in the support offered to refugees and their sponsors.
Since January, Shenkman, an entrepreneur with a background in business publishing, has been developing a website, which should launch in a few weeks, that will help Toronto-area refugees and sponsors with employment-related issues.
“While sponsors have lots of guidance about housing and food and medicine, when it came to employment, there isn’t a lot of support,” he says. Refugee agencies have pushed for new arrivals to spend their first year in Canada learning English, but Zuhair was anxious to find a job before the 12-month sponsorship expired, he says.
Shenkman is not the only person who comes to visit the Syrian family. Zuhair and Batoul list off a string of at least 20 names when they talk about their new friends at Holy Blossom.
Chief among them is Jacqueline Friedland, who spearheaded the effort to sponsor the family starting in the summer of 2015, when the crisis in Syria finally became evident and the haunting picture of a drowned Syrian toddler was broadcast around the world.
Canadians, horror-stricken by the images of vulnerable families on the move or stuck in desolate refugee camps, mobilized to sponsor refugees, as the government removed the quota for private sponsorships from Iraq and Syria.
By January 2017, 40,000 Syrian refugees had come to Canada, including 14,000 who were privately sponsored by groups like Holy Blossom Temple.
Privately sponsored refugees have tended to integrate quicker than government-sponsored refugees. About half of privately sponsored refugees are employed in their first year in Canada, compared with about 10 per cent of government-sponsored refugees, a statistic that has also held up for the Syrians, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
For the Jewish community, the images of Syrian refugees hit a particularly tender spot and synagogues from throughout Canada raised funds and applied to sponsor families.
Brenda Karp saw the news stories and called her rabbi, Dan Moskovitz, of Vancouver’s Temple Sholom.
“It was, to me, reminiscent of the genocide that had gone on for our people 70 years ago,” she says. “It behooves us as Jewish people to reach out to people who need our help,” she told the rabbi.
Rabbi Moskovitz spoke about the issue on Rosh Hashanah and the sponsorship project was launched.
Temple Sholom raised $100,000 and applied to sponsor two families. The first family arrived in March, the second is scheduled to arrive this month.
Karp, chair of the temple’s refugee project, says that volunteers are supporting the family, but are also careful not to overwhelm them.
“We have a database of 100 volunteers offering whatever help we need. We’ve got 100 people we can reach out to and we’ve never had a ‘no,’ ” says Karp.
At Holy Blossom, an initial email and meeting generated a great deal of interest and soon committees were set up to find housing, store furniture and raise money for the sponsorship. Other volunteers arranged medical care, set up appointments and drove the newcomers around.
“It absolutely takes a village,” says Friedland. “It’s been a great communal effort.”
In addition to the young family, Holy Blossom also sponsored Batoul’s parents, who arrived in November. The temple also provides support to another refugee family and more recently began helping a group of newly arrived Yazidi families in Richmond Hill, Ont., by raising funds for car seats and donating furniture. Friedland’s name is on a new application from the temple to sponsor another Yazidi family.
Friedland recalls her parents adopting a Russian-Jewish immigrant family when she was a child, which inspired her to continued mentoring Russian, and now Syrian, immigrants.
“My mom was my role model,” she says. “My life is richer because of these people who have entered it.”
Integrating the family into Canada has been a delicate balance. “We want to help them and bring them and drive them places, but at the same time, we want them to learn to take the bus, which they did,” Friedland says. “They have shown great resilience and determination and wanting to be independent.”
One of the few awkward moments in the relationship came when the couple, unhappy with their new English teacher, ended up quitting the language classes.
“That was really difficult for us. We wanted them to be proficient in English in this year when they didn’t have to worry about paying their rent,” Friedland recalls. The committee struggled with what their role was and how to approach the issue. In the end, the couple found another program and re-enrolled in English classes.
There have been heartbreaking moments, as well. Once, while Batoul’s mother was at Friedland’s home for brunch, she noticed a doll in Friedland’s collection of souvenirs from her travels and said that she too had had a doll like that once.
“It made me realize how much they left and how difficult it would be to choose what you bring when you’re running,” Friedland says.
Friedland and her 12-year-old son and husband often visit the family on Sundays, bringing fresh bagels with them. Batoul has in turn made them delicious Middle Eastern food.
The couple’s boys love playing with her son and they will all be invited to his bar mitzvah next year.
The close ties between Zuhair, Batoul and their sponsors is something Lia Kisel, language and settlement director at Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), has seen often.
The Jewish immigrant aid agency is the official sponsorship agreement holder, the go-between linking the federal government and about 35 sponsoring groups in Toronto, as well as a provider of language classes and other settlement services. According to Kisel, about 150 refugees were sponsored by groups affiliated with JIAS. All but eight of them have arrived in Canada.
Like Zuhair and Batoul, the majority of newcomers said they had never met Jews before and didn’t know what to expect, Kisel says. “But from the very beginning, they were just very grateful. They were overwhelmed by knowing there was a group of people who just wanted to help out and bring them to safety.”
Over time, what began as relationships based on appreciation, have evolved into real friendships, she says.
“The feedback from constituent groups (sponsors) and refugees is that it’s been a fabulous experience,” she says.
JIAS has also learned numerous lessons from the efforts to settle the refugees and has worked with the Arab Community Centre of Toronto to learn more about the newcomers’ culture and traditions.
The groundswell of enthusiasm for sponsoring and settling the newcomers also showed JIAS something else, she says. “We learned how much we can do when people are united and they want to achieve something. This was only possible when people got together and said they wanted to help.”