In December 2015, a group from Grace Toronto Church gathered together to help global refugees. Like the rest of the world, they had been horrified by the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had washed up on Turkish shores as his family tried reaching Canada. The small group researched the process of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family in Canada. On June 7, 2016, after months of waiting (and raising the legally required $30,000 for settlement), they received an email that a Syrian mother and father, along with their three children, would be arriving on June 20.
I talked about the experience with Jennifer McNaughton, one of the lead members of the team. (The notes from our phone interview have been condensed and lightly edited.)
How much did you know about the family before arrival?
We knew the children’s ages (8, 7, 4) and had a brief work history for the parents. The father had been an upholsterer; the mother, a housecleaner. We knew they were coming from Beirut, where they’d been living for a few years after having fled Syria. But apart from this—and knowing they spoke no English—we knew little.
What are some things you did to prepare for their arrival?
It wasn’t easy to plan since we didn’t know exactly when the family would be arriving. But after April 1, when our sponsorship request for this particular family was officially approved, our team divided up some of the most important and immediate tasks. Some worked to secure affordable housing in Toronto. Others acted as liaisons with World Renew, the organization that facilitated the process of settlement in coordination with Immigration Canada. Still others researched cell phone and internet plans as well as medical and dental care. We had point-people for budget and finance, and the entire church—and our broader community of friends, family, and colleagues—contributed money as well as donations for furnishing their apartment.
One thing I’ve tangibly learned from this experience is that God provides for every detail. So many times, logistically speaking, we were at the end of our resources. And then someone would unexpectedly help. They donated items. They donated time. They lent vehicles. They gave money. They used connections. The Lord was so faithful.
Describe the day of the family’s arrival to Canada.
The family arrived on June 20—World Refugee Day, incidentally. Three team members and a translator (an Arabic speaker from our church) went to the airport with snacks, bottles of water, stuffed animals, and a printed sign in Arabic that read, “Welcome, K. Family.”
I was surprised because I expected them to be in traditional Islamic clothing, but they were dressed like Westerners. We asked, through the translator, if they were fasting (since it was Ramadan), and we learned that while their cultural background is Islam, they aren’t practicing Muslims. With only one translator, it was impossible to say everything we wanted to say, so we made a lot of eye contact and did a lot of smiling!
If there was a “honeymoon” in the settlement process, how long did it last? What was that period like?
On their second day in Canada, I took the family on a bus to a park overlooking Lake Ontario. We set up a blanket, and the kids were playing soccer with a little inflatable ball I’d brought along. Suddenly, the ball got kicked into the lake, and the wind carried it away faster than any of us could chase it. Their 8-year-old son, who knew a dozen words in French and a couple of words in English, started to wave at the ball and call after it, “Bye-bye, ballon (French for ball).” Without any kind of rehearsal, we all just stood at the beach, dramatically pretending as if we were crying, each of us calling out, “Bye-bye ballon.” It was comical and an immediate kind of bonding beyond language.
Our team definitely felt a bit euphoric after the family’s arrival. They were here. They were safe and in good health. They were opening bank accounts and getting registered for ESL classes. We taught them the words and motions to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” Those little victories were energizing. And the family was (and is) so hospitable. Each time we visited, there was delicious food and coffee. For a period of weeks, it seemed we avoided major challenges, and life was relatively smooth.
What was the first big challenge?
Right before the family left Lebanon, the mom had opted for a dental procedure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done well, and infection had ensued. In their initial weeks here, she was living with a lot of low-level pain, but they didn’t tell us about it, not wanting to be too demanding. Then suddenly we were facing emergency dental surgery, which we didn’t know how we’d pay for—because while dental care was an eventual priority, it wasn’t ahead of permanent housing, which we were still trying to secure.
About three months into their settlement, reality started to set in for the parents. I suppose I had the unspoken, unconscious expectation that the parents would feel so optimistic about their new life in Canada, so hopeful and grateful for the opportunities for their kids. But I soon realized how difficult it was to say permanent goodbyes to everything they had known. I remember one appointment at a governmental office where it was explained to them that their refugee assistance would be paused if they left the country within the first six months of their settlement. The father said (through a translator), “Now I live and die in Canada.”
I think it was this loss of “control” that led to some unexpected difficulties. As I mentioned, we’d secured furniture for their apartment, but we started to understand that they weren’t happy with some of it. They didn’t like that one of the couches was worn. They didn’t like that one of the cushions had a stain on it. They didn’t like the color. All of this felt so hurtful, quite honestly, since we’d tried so hard to get good-quality items to bless them with. And yet, at the same time, I came to understand how this family is just like me: They like beautiful things. They’re hospitable people, and they wanted a home to be proud of and invite people into. And truthfully, their home here was really the last thing under their control. Simply using their voice to say what they would and wouldn’t accept (in terms of donations) was like exercising a small but important advocacy for themselves.
What did it look like to work through that period of colliding expectations and hurt feelings?
I work as a communications coach, so I naturally want to work through conflict by talking. But the language barrier in this case made that kind of direct resolution impossible. Instead, it really was the ministry of presence that restored our relationship. There were conversations about the critical issues (although they didn’t reflect the kind of the emotional nuance I usually relied on). Nevertheless, we kept spending time together, eating together. Forgiveness happened—quite apart from words—because relationship-building become front and center again.
This ministry of presence is the long-term investment to which our team is called. And honestly, it’s not easy. People get busy. Life changes. We have family responsibilities to attend. But as we all sort of collectively understood from the beginning, this work is worthwhile because of Jesus’s deep love for the outcast. This matters to him, that we care for the weak and the vulnerable. As Robert, another team member has often said, “We love and forgive because we’ve been loved and forgiven. It’s not any virtue on our part. We’re simply responding.”
What’s ahead for the K. family?
In a couple months we’ll begin transitioning them to what it will look like, after their first full year in Canada, to no longer receive the financial assistance from us they’ve been used to. But right now, we’re still practically involved in the everyday affairs of the family’s life. The father will often text me a picture of mail he’s received, the implied question being, “What is this?” I am the contact person with the children’s school to help the parents interpret various reports and permission forms. Robert is their go-to person for financial questions, and his wife, Marcia, is on-call for their children’s health emergencies. Each week there is either another donation to bring over or a maintenance item in the apartment to fix. And of course, there are always meals and games of hide-and-go-seek with the kids!
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to groups or individuals looking to help resettle refugees? And maybe one final word of encouragement?
Two pieces of advice, I guess. First, I would encourage groups to have a spiritual leader or pastor keep in regular contact with the team, praying with them and for them as well as for the family and the settlement process. Second, groups shouldn’t depend on their ability to govern by consensus, which we mistakenly did. If they can choose a leader to delegate responsibilities among team members and make executive decisions when necessary, that’s going to help a lot.
I can simply say that this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
In terms of encouragement, I can simply say that this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I am confident God has worked everything together to bring this family here to this place at this time. Seeing them blossom is breathtaking to witness. I just saw a video the father took of himself and his son as they laced up their ice skates, pushing their plastic chairs for balance on the ice.
They’re doing it! Mastering the language. Learning and growing, despite the challenges. And somehow, by God’s grace, we’ve gotten to be a part of that story of flourishing.
- How to Respond to the Refugee Crisis (David Platt)
- Our Refugee Moment (David Platt)
- Love and Loss in Syria’s Refugee Crisis (Cort Gatliff)
- Ways to Welcome the Refugee (Suzanne See)
- Love the Sojourner: 4 Steps Forward in Refugee Outreach (Matt McCullough)
- What You Should Know About the Syrian Refugee Controversy (Joe Carter)
- 9 Things You Should Know About Refugees in America (Joe Carter)
- The FAQs: President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigrants and Refugees (Joe Carter)
Author’s note: While immigration polices differ between the United States and Canada, Americans can also participate in refugee resettlement. Read about the experience of one congregation in Princeton, New Jersey, featured on NPR. To learn more, contact organizations like World Relief.