Saturday, December 31, 2016

From one sister to another


Room for More is grateful to all donors who have come forward in the last month to help bring our extended Syrian family to Toronto.  Special thanks to Maxine, who works part-time at Fresh Collective on Roncesvalles, in a job training program for adults with special needs.
Maxine (left), with Fresh Collective Founder/CEO Laura-Jean
The story behind the photo: "Maxine decided to celebrate her 30th birthday by sharing her good fortunes with a Syrian refugee family trying to join their relatives here in Toronto. Maxine loves her two brothers so much and would be devastated were they to be forced to live elsewhere. At Maxine's workplace, the Fresh Collective on Roncesvalles, she heard of the Room for More organization looking for financial help. Maxine donated all of her birthday present money and asked for donations in her name be made to Room for More. Maxine hopes that her gift will make a move to Toronto that much more real for these families. Maxine continues to contribute to her community here in High Park / Roncesvalles in ways that help celebrate people of all backgrounds and abilities." 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Syrian-Canadian party time

It's getting dark and cold in Canada, but Room for More warmed things up at the start of December with a party to celebrate Syrian food and music, and to raise funds for our new families, arriving soon. Dozens of friends, friends-of-friends, and total strangers crowded the house where Room for More began.

Our party featured crazy amounts of Syrian food prepared by our sponsored family, with help from sponsor group members.  Cooking together, we learned new recipes and discovered new spices and presentation ideas (nuts on everything! an army of romaine spears guarding the tabbouleh!).

Newcomer musicians Esmeel Aboufakher and Rahaf Alakbani (profiled here) gave us traditional Syrian music. Their first song told the story of a man far from home who has a conversation with a priest from the Old Country about missing that place.  It was beautiful, and heartbreaking, and I recorded the whole thing on my phone, but something's wrong with my phone (I discovered) and so we just have this 30-second clip:
video
Our musicians already knew our sponsored family because the youngest child in the family is a member of the children's choir they have organized, a choir which went up to Ottawa just after our party to sing at the House of Commons and meet Justin Trudeau.  These kids are going places.

From a fundraising perspective, the event did well, getting us most of the way towards being able to support the two new families coming in (soon, we hope).  We also have a few new group members who can share the tasks of helping out the new families.

From a cultural perspective, it was great to hear and taste what Syrian newcomers are bringing to the country.  We learned new things this year.  For the party, I made baklava for the first time, following Maureen Abood's radical path of not putting butter between every single layer of phyllo dough (that's 4 hours saved, right there).  Came out looking good, if I do say so myself.
The Syrian pronounciation is "baklawa"

The Syrian food thing has been a positive development in my house, where I had fallen into a rut involving a very limited run of pasta and taco meals. I bought this cookbook, written by a Canadian woman and her son, originally from Aleppo but now living in Montreal.  Some amazing flavour combinations there, unlike any other Middle Eastern cuisine I have tasted.

We hope to have another party a year from now, to celebrate with the new families coming in, and our first sponsored family, well-established in Canada.  Until then, stay warm!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Celebrating what we have here

As November creeps on, the days are getting darker.  News feeds are crowded with stories of the continuing disaster in Syria and storm clouds closer to home, and it's hard to see how to respond.  I've been walking around Toronto thinking about how lucky we are to live here, and how much the vibrancy of our city depends on the newcomers who have come from all over the world to live here, with newcomers now making up half the city's population. Half of our sponsorship group, too: Room for More includes members who have come to Canada from Poland, Lebanon, Brazil, Pakistan and the United States, alongside Canadians from Toronto, the East and West Coasts, and Saskatchewan. Private sponsorship has the benefit of bringing us into close contact with each other, and with "our" new family from Syria.  It has also had the benefit of bringing us into contact with Syrian food, which is, quite frankly, amazing.
Syrian brunch prepared by Newcomer Kitchen (where the mom in our family works part-time)

The hospitality at our new family's place is always warm, and involves a crazy number of dishes.  We are also getting to know something of the music (I don't know about the other group members, but it's been a new world for me listening to whatever the teens have on their phones when I am driving them somewhere).

The Oud - a Syrian lute

The news media has focused quite a bit on what our newcomers are getting in Canada, but our group wanted to take one night to celebrate what they are giving. On Saturday, December 3, Room for More is hosting an Evening of Syrian Food and Music at a group member's home. We'll be cooking with members of our sponsored family, and we'll have traditional live Syrian music, played on the bozok, which is an oud-like instrument so obscure I can't find a picture of it (or maybe I'm transliterating wrong?).  Anyway, our musican is Esmaeel Abou Fakher, and he is without question the most amazing bozok player we've ever heard... .

The evening is also a fundraiser for the new families who are coming in: a couple with three young children, now 9, 7 and 4, and a couple with an 18-month old toddler. They will arrive by January or February of 2017, we are told, and if you'd like to help us support them, our donations link is here. Also, if you'd like to come out to the party, email us at RoomForMore2015@gmail.com and let us know -- we'd love to celebrate with you, as long as there is room for more (but the house only fits so many, so let us know earlier rather than later if you are eager to come out).  Whatever happens we'll post some pictures of the food and videos of the music.  And as winter comes, try to keep warm.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How is it going? (Them and Us)

Everyone keeps asking how our family is doing, and the quick answer is: great. The kids are all settled in school, their mother is attending English as a Second Language courses, and she has also done some training to work as a peer counselor for women who have experienced trauma (she's a natural -- I hope I don't experience trauma before she gets further in the ESL because I will want her to be my trauma counselor, when that need arises). Meanwhile the youngest child in particular has distinguished himself as a talented drummer and rapper, performing audacious solos at his school concert and on stage at the West Neighbourhood House annual Refugee Rights Day party.  He has absolutely zero stage fright (and got a standing ovation).

The longer answer to the question of how they are doing involves some bittersweet notes, missing home and friends, struggling to find the right words in a new language, getting through the Canadian winter, getting on the wrong bus (once), and enduring an awful lot of vaccinations and dental visits.  But our family -- a widowed Syrian mom and five kids, who arrived in Toronto at the end of December 2015 -- are resilient and optimistic, and they have a bunch of friends in the city now, including another Syrian family in the next building, and also including us.

How are we doing, in the sponsorship group?  Many of us started this by focusing on how things would change for our sponsored family, but we've been noticing unexpected changes in ourselves as well. Sponsoring has been a chance to get to know each other, and another side of the city, visiting apartment blocks and halal grocery stores we hadn't noticed before, really talking to that guy at the falafel place who turns out to be sponsoring his brother, connecting to strangers who want to help, and especially members of Toronto's Arabic-speaking community, who have come to the rescue on countless occasions when we needed someone to translate or solve a problem.  Civic issues like housing, summer youth programs and low-cost dentistry are suddenly much more vivid for us. We've also really enjoyed the family's hospitality -- stopping by means staying for an hour for tea (compulsory tea!), or more -- and it's reminded us of the value of slowing down and spending more time face to face with family and friends.



Reflecting on our status as a sponsorship group, I recently asked Room for More group members what brought them in, and I'm compelled to share their replies here:

Katherine O'Neil: 
1. We’re always telling our kids that to whom much is given, much is expected.  If we’re in a position to help others, quite simply it’s the right thing to do.
 2. Helping others transcends religion, culture, and nationality.  It’s about being human and realizing that if we don’t step up and help our global community, what sort of community are we creating?
 3. We are so much more alike than we are different.  This is something we’ve experienced with our sponsored family.  They just want a safe place to call home and a chance at a future without war.  Don’t we all?

Laura-Jean Bernhardson:
In September 2015, I was horrified by the images of the Syrian refugee crisis in the media like so many people, and when my cousin Jennifer posted on Facebook that there is something people can do, I decided I had to join in.  I went to a meeting in her living room with several other people, the first of several meetings, and we took the first steps to form a sponsorship group.  Just a few months later, our sponsored family arrived. 
     Being part of this group and this process has been rewarding in countless ways. This crisis is history in the making, and I'm proud to be able to contribute to making people's lives better.  Being involved helps me remember what's really important, how lucky I am to be born Canadian and how abundant our country is.  It's also a true privilege to be working alongside other good hearted and generous people.  If you want to make your own life better, lend a hand to someone else.  It works instantly! 

Claire Westgate:
When the local media started to report heavily on what was happening with refugees, something clicked – I literally sobbed at my kitchen table for an hour, I can’t remember what the article was that prompted it, but whatever it was, a switch flipped for me.  It’s not that I didn’t realize these things were happening in the world, but until that moment, it hadn’t sunk in that I could, and should, play some sort of role in helping to right the disastrous course that things are taking.  Quite simply, people need to be better to each other, and Room for More represents all that people can, and should, do for each other, most especially in times of dire need.   So – I emailed you!  And here we are.

And.. a group member who asked to remain anonymous:



My life is very comfortable. I live alone in a two bedroom apartment in a city where I feel safe going out by myself at any time of day or night. I don't have to worry from day to day or month to month about food or shelter or security. I have (and am able to add to) savings for emergencies, large expenses, and future retirement. I have to ask myself how many luxuries I can possibly be entitled to when I could instead help someone who does not have the comfort and security that I can take more or less for granted.
   I had read the autobiography of Ida Cook, who wrote romance novels for Mills and Boon under the name Mary Burchell, and who became involved in helping Jews get out of Europe in the late 1930s. At the most dramatic end of the spectrum, she helped smuggle valuables into Britain so that when refugees were able to leave Europe they had some of their own resources with them. At the more prosaic end she collected small donations from Britons who could contribute funds with guarantors who would agree to support refugees using those funds once they arrived from Europe. When the Syrian refugee crisis was in the news in August and September 2015, I knew that I could not sponsor an entire family on my own, but I wanted to contribute in some way -- and that was when I saw your post on Facebook proposing a sponsorship group.

*****************************************

We will be channeling the spirit of Ida Cook in the months to come as we look for support for the two new families we are bringing over: a couple with children ages 8, 6, and 4, and another couple with an 11-month-old baby.  If all goes well they should arrive in July or August. 

It remains an open question how far Canada will go in keeping places open for refugees seeking resettlement, but it is clear that strong private sponsorship support makes it politically much easier for the government to hold the door open (both to Syrians and to others from war zones around the world).  The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has praised Canada and argued that our Private Sponsorship of Refugeees program should serve as a model for other countries in the world. Canadians seeking to sponsor refugees can start a group and anyone at all is welcome to help us with donations, large or small.  If you ever need a drummer, rapper, trauma counselor or very leisurely cup of tea, we've got you covered.




Saturday, January 16, 2016

What do we bring to the potluck?

The main guest of honour was refreshingly honest: "I'd like to apologize that I don't know everyone's names." She might have been surprised to hear this, but I didn't know everyone's names either, and I launched the group and co-organized the event.  Our group had somehow rippled outwards from being a few close friends and neighbors to being something larger, involving community leaders, local heroes and strangers willing to show up on a dark January night to bring a dish to our welcome potluck, held in the party room of the family's apartment building.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Arriving and settling

In theory, sponsors get 10 days' advance notification of the arrival of their refugee families.  In practice, it's been a bit chaotic lately.  We found out about our family's arrival less than 48 hours before their plane touched down, and, crucially, just a few hours before No Frills supermarket closed its doors for the two-day city-wide Christmas-Boxing Day holiday. We had already stocked the family's apartment with rice, lentils and other dry goods, but their fridge was empty. Have you been to No Frills late afternoon on Christmas Eve?  It felt weirdly festive, if a bit panicky, the way many things have felt lately.