It seems that we have been watching the civil war in Syria play out forever now with images of war, people without homes, children washing ashore, and debates about refugees seeking shelter in our own backyards dominating news headlines and being etched in our minds. These images and debates have no doubt affected us, forcing us to question humanity or even those in our own family as to why they think the way they do. At the end of the day, there are innocent people dying at the hands of their own government and they need help.
If you are of the mindset that we should do nothing, let alone welcome these people with open arms, I almost considered asking you to stop reading, but in actuality, you are the audience I’m targeting here. If you are of the opinion that these people need our help and you want to lend a hand, thank you for giving me hope in the human race, and keep reading as well.
So, I love a good social justice-minded celebrity and I also love wrestling; (I’m talking professional wrestling, as in WWE) earlier in the summer I read about WWE Superstar Sami Zayn (real name Rami Sebei), who happens to be a Canadian of Syrian descent and his campaign SamiForSyria. The campaign, which is in partnership with The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), “a non-political, non-profit medical relief organization that is working on the front lines of crisis relief in Syria and neighboring countries to alleviate suffering and save lives” is aiming “to raise funds to launch a new mobile clinic, which would provide primary medical aid for civilians in Syria who otherwise have no access to health care”, according to their press release.
Sami, whose parents came to Montreal in the 1970’s says in the press release “[w]ith the devastation of the conflict in Syria, hospitals have been destroyed, making healthcare access not only limited but also dangerous. A mobile clinic will be able to safely provide primary healthcare to those in need,” and by donating to the campaign, SAMS will be able to “directly help the elderly, the disabled, and the women and children whose homes have been destroyed and are now living in camps.”
I spoke with Lobna Haassairi, of SAMS who tells me that it was Sami who reached out to them about “wanting to support SAMS medical relief efforts inside Syria.” Lobna says that since SamiForSyria started, the response has been “extremely positive”. “The original goal of the campaign was to raise $48K, in less than 3 weeks, we surpassed it. As of now, he raised more than $96K and the campaign still going.”
I asked what Sami and SAMS hoped to do with the funds they have raised once they surpassed their goal. Since the mobile unit was launched on August 15, the team manages to serve an average of thirty patients per day; most of these patients being displaced refugees living in camps. The team includes a physician, nurse, midwife, psychiatrist and a technician with a psychosocial support counselor set to join.
Moving closer to home, last year during an episode of CTV’s The Social, one of the co-hosts, Jessica Allen visited a restaurant called Le Depanneur in Toronto, which was opening its kitchen up to Syrian newcomers for a program called Newcomer Kitchen. According to the restaurant’s website, this program allows “Syrian refugee women to use our kitchen to cook traditional Syrian dishes in a fun, social setting.” The meals are then packaged and sold online for pick-up and delivery in order to buy more ingredients and pay the cooks. “What really struck me is I could have been anywhere in the world at any given time because it was just a group of people together cooking; making meals for their loved ones, and all of the stuff that goes with that,” Jess told the other co-hosts. Ms. Allen then spoke about how the women she had met “…kept reiterating the idea that Canadians had been so warm and so welcoming to them; and that made me incredibly proud…” as she fought back tears.
A few weeks later, I too was fighting back tears during a sub day as I gathered with the rest of the staff and students at Leary’s Brook Elementary for their annual Thanksgiving Assembly. During the ceremony, some students were given the opportunity to speak to those in attendance about what they were thankful for. Among the students were refugees who spoke about being thankful to live in Canada and be able to safely attend school. One student spoke about being thankful for “our President” (OK, so he meant Prime Minister, but he’s new here and only in junior high). Because of Prime Minister Trudeau, this student said that he was able to attend school and not have to worry about being killed, or killing anyone. That statement was so powerful as I thought about every person who I’d heard vocalize their opinions on Canada’s policy on welcoming refugees and how wrong they were, and how I wish they could have heard this student. We opened our doors to this boy and we very likely saved his life.
I reached out to the Association of New Canadians (ANC) here in St. John’s and spoke with Sarah Geck, Director of Settlement Services about their work with Syrian refugees and what the response has been from the local community. She told me that since December 2015, the ANC has resettled 280 government assisted Syrian refugees; with 90 percent having remained in Newfoundland and Labrador while the rest relocated to other provinces to be closer to friends or family. Sarah says that response from the local community, especially since the Syrian crisis in December 2015 has been “extraordinary”. “Donations of clothes, furniture, and other household items were overwhelming. In addition, given the growing interest in immigration across the province, community groups have come out to show their support by way of the private sponsorship program and as such, have assisted over 180 privately sponsored refugees in the same time period.”
Sarah says that after over a year in Canada, the refugees are settling in well. Children attend school and most of the adults attend ESL classes at the ANC’s Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) Program or have begun working. She says that when surveyed, the number one thing Syrian refugees say about coming to Canada is “thank you”.
During these types of discussions, I’m always reminded of a line from the song “Crumbs From Your Table” by U2 which says “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die” and I think that is what we all need to remember in situations like this. I always think about what would happen if we as Canadians needed to seek refuge; would people help? Wouldn’t we want them to?
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Sami Zayn sort of echoes those U2 lyrics. “I honestly think about this all the time now—if my parents hadn’t left Syria, maybe I wouldn’t be a WWE Superstar. Maybe I’d be the one that you see on the news. Maybe that’d be my kid in the rubble, and maybe that’d be me floating on a little raft in the Mediterranean. It could very easily be me, and that’s why it’s such a personal connection to me,” he said. “If I can help people who don’t have a connection to Syria make a connection to Syria as a Syrian person, then I’m happy to do that.”
Here in St. John’s, the ANC is continuing to assist refugees and all permanent residents in Newfoundland and Labrador. “The community is crucial in delivering so many of our programs and we depend on monetary donations and volunteers to continue providing the same level of support to newcomers,” says Sarah.
If you would like to help, the ANC is always accepting new volunteers. You can contact their Volunteer Coordinator at email@example.com or 709-722-9680 and if you would like to support the SamiForSyria campaign, text SAMIFORSYRIA to 71777