A year of firsts: What sponsoring a Syrian family has taught me

When I first saw that photo of Alan Kurdi on the beach, I knew I had to do something. And as part of a private sponsorship group, my family helped bring a young family of four to Canada. Their lives have changed since arriving in Canada. It’s changed ours, too.

birthday-party This fall, Ahmad celebrated his first birthday in Canada. Photo: Emma Waverman

I held his bucking legs in one hand and his mother’s hand in my other. The 17-month-old, yellow with jaundice, was screaming and kicking with all his might as the nurses tried to put in the IV. He needed treatment immediately. But what do you say to a toddler to get him to lie still as a needle hovers over his head? Especially when he doesn’t speak any English?

Would he be all right? What was causing the jaundice? Would this be his first memory of coming to Canada? The fact he wasn’t my child—I only met him a few months ago—did not decrease my anxiety. You see, Aboudi, and his family are now part of my extended family. Their struggles are now mine. Aboudi, his three-year-old brother, Ahmad, and his parents, Ziad and Safa, are Syrian refugees. Over the last six months, their lives have intertwined with my own.

Aboudi Photo: Emma Waverman Playing in the park. Photo: Emma Waverman

As part of a group of 20 families, I’ve quickly realized that sponsoring a refugee family is a little like taking a crash course in parenting—we’re essentially cramming years of mentoring into 12 months. For now, we are responsible for the family’s financial, emotional and physical well-being, but by next February, Ziad and Safa will need to support themselves in all aspects of their lives.

When they first arrived, we did absolutely everything for them—getting their clothes, taking them on the subway, even buying their groceries. Bit by bit, we are letting go of the errands and daily check-ins, hoping they can navigate the myriad decisions that come with their new life in Canada. But the emergency calls still come. A bank card got eaten. A letter from the government they can’t read arrives. And, sometimes, it’s something more serious.

I was out walking my dog when our friendly, indispensible Arabic interpreter called to say that something was wrong with Aboudi. By the time I got home, I’d received two more text messages saying the toddler was listless and yellow. I thought Safa was being alarmist, but I called their doctor as well as a member of our group who is a paediatrician. But when I took one look at the little boy, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me to head straight to the hospital.


Sometimes I feel like a new parent myself, blindly trying to figure out how to best help these strangers whose needs I don’t always understand, but whose lives I care about deeply. There are those familiar feelings of frustration, exhaustion, confusion mingled with joy and a deep sense of connection. We are all fumbling along together—we make mistakes, have misunderstandings and moments of clarity despite the vast different life experiences. It is easy to sound paternalistic when being a sponsor, but that’s something I want to guard against—because as much as we are teaching the family, what we get back is exponential and indescribable.

A challenge I couldn’t ignore It all started in June, 2015, when I heard a radio interview. An expert from Lifeline Syria was explaining how Canadians could make a difference in the lives of Syrian refugees who were streaming across Europe looking for a safe place to live. Uniquely Canadian, the private sponsorship program pairs refugees with groups of regular citizens who are willing to put up the money and time for one year. I felt chills listening to her, and started wondering if I could be one of those ordinary people.

After all, our country hasn’t always been so welcoming to refugees. I wanted to be part of a movement that accepted refugees, just as my Jewish relatives were eventually accepted into this country. The gut-wrenching photograph of little Alan Kurdi strengthened my resolve. I kept asking myself: was it possible, could we really commit to a group of strangers for a year? My friend (whose parents had sponsored Vietnamese refugees in the ’70s) said it wasn’t about if we could do it—we must do it. The challenge was laid, and we started to form a group to sponsor a family. We asked our book clubs and friends in the neighbourhood, and before long we were turning people away.

Right from the first meeting last summer, it was clear a few of us wanted to take on leadership roles, while others preferred to be called on a case-by-case basis. Thankfully, some highly organized people offered to tackle the paperwork and the financial planning, and I volunteered to focus on the people. We created a “core four” of members who make the decisions. A year later, our group still meets, but most of the day-to-day work is done by myself and my friend Linton; the treasurer monitors the finances and meets with the family monthly; the medical committee manages the many appointments; everyone else helps out when they can. (My advice to those forming a group: make sure there are lots of people who have daytime availability.) Four months after their arrival, I still call or email or just think about the family every day.

From the beginning, we spent hours trying to make sense of the administrative tasks, going to training sessions and making hundreds of phone calls. (I must have eaten at least 26 pounds of banana bread at all the various meetings.) People were so eager to give, we quickly raised the $28,000 the government mandates sponsor groups raise before they’re matched with a family. The money we raised pays their rent and expenses for the first year. We were working with the Catholic Church’s refugee agency (ORAT) who administers the funds, and double-checks our expenses and paperwork. Eventually we filled out all the paperwork, secured the funds and came up with a settlement plan. (Kind of like a birth plan, it was a perfect fantasy of how we would work with the family in their first few months, in which we didn’t plan for any weather, illness, or human error.)


By November, we received the name of “our family” along with the sketchiest of details. We knew Ziad, 22 and Safa, 20, had two boys and had been living in Jordan since fleeing their Syrian town three years ago. We even had photos, which we dutifully put on our fridge. One family portrait had obviously been taken by a professional photographer—Ziad told me later, that he had that done in an effort to “sell” the family to prospective donors. (It didn’t make the difference, but it was nice to have.) I’d look at the four of them on the fridge, wondering about what they’d be like, what they were going through, and when would they arrive.

Then the nesting stage began. One group member had a contact who owned some apartment buildings and wanted to donate an apartment. Housing is often the most difficult obstacle, so we were lucky to have tripped on something so easily; the extra money we had raised then went to another refugee group working with ORAT. Each group member contributed money, time and sweat equity cleaning and setting up the space. All the furniture was donated by friends and friends of friends, although we made the executive decision to get new mattresses. Agencies and companies sprung up throughout the country with free clothing, furniture and even free phones (though they were BlackBerry phones, which aren’t that helpful to Arabic speakers). Our kids made welcome signs, and we fussed over the layout of the apartment like expectant parents obsessing over the perfect nursery.

And then we waited. We had no idea if our family would be part of the first 20,000 refugees that the government promised would arrive by the end of February. We called our MPs and exploited any contacts we could muster. A few weeks later, I woke up to a text from Ziad: “We are to report to airport on Monday morning.” My heart stopped. In 48 hours our family would be arriving from Jordan.

Even then, in my naiveté, I knew the hard work was just beginning.

Starting a new life Several times that weekend I had to stop and take a deep breath as I obsessed over questions that had no answer. Would they like their apartment? Would they regret coming to Canada? Would they like us? No matter how stressed I was, I knew Ziad and Safa must feel exponentially worse. They were leaving everything they knew behind—including Ziad’s parents and siblings—to fly to a new country where a bunch of strangers were planning their lives.


Three years ago, Ziad and his family had been forced to leave their small town outside of Damascus after living without power or water for three months. Ziad, along with Safa, newborn Ahmad, and his mother and sister, walked for days and then paid smugglers to get them over the border. Ziad doesn’t talk much about that walk, other than referring to the fear and stress of carrying a newborn with them. They were reunited with Ziad’s brother and father, who had gone ahead to find lodgings. After a year in Jordan, Aboudi was born. The family of nine lived in a tiny apartment where they barely had enough to exist on.

Aboudi the day he arrived to Canada. Photo: Emma Waverman Aboudi arrived with his family in February. Photo: Emma Waverman

Now life was changing again. Ziad and Safa and their two boys arrived on a deceivingly warm day at the end of February. We greeted them at an airport hotel with awkward hugs and Canadian flags. Ziad and I recognized each other right away, and I may have broken a cultural taboo by hugging him, but it happened before I could stop myself. The drive home was filled with stilted conversations and the cries of the boys who had never been strapped into car seats before. They were overwhelmed and tired; we were anxious and excited.

ahmed snow2 There was a lot to learn and discover about their new country. Photo: Emma Waverman

The first few weeks were a blur. As a mother, I’m familiar with the feeling of making it all up as I go along. At least this time, I had other people to lean on. A member of our group was with them every day. We took them to government offices in snowstorms, taught their kids the importance of mittens, and tried to translate Canadian foodstuffs. They didn’t know what to make of the Goldfish crackers that I had placed in their cupboard. The bag sat there for weeks until my own kids opened them up and showed them the snacks' salty, addictive qualities.


I’ve no doubt there were moments for all of us—including Ziad and Safa—when we wondered why we’d gotten into this situation. One glance at my kids and I remembered. Almost everyone in our group is a parent, and we joined partly in the hope of setting an example to our kids—to show them that there can be goodness in the world and that, just as the cliché says, a small group of people can make a difference.

The reality, of course, is a little bit more complicated, but my kids have been fully engaged with the family. My kids, aged 16, 13, and 10, often play with Aboudi and Ahmad while I am with Ziad and Safa. They laughed until they cried as they pulled Ahmad on a sled through the snow. They treat the boys as if they’re younger cousins to be humoured, and guided when things get too rough. Ahmad and Aboudi love my kids as well, and are disappointed when I show up at their door without them.

There have been practical lessons, too, like when my 13-year old organized a giant bake sale to raise money to send Ahmad to a sports program. My kids now have a far better understanding of how hard it is to live in the city below the poverty line, and that poverty is not about laziness but circumstance. And I know that as the years go on, I will see the footprint of other lessons, some I may have never considered. Maybe when they are adults and another refugee crisis hits, they will remember our experience and reaching out to help will be a reflex.

DSC_0532 Ahmad playing with Emma’s daughter. Photo: Emma Waverman

Cultural exchange The cultural divide is immense but also nothing at the same time. Safa wears a long dress that covers her wrists and ankles. She keeps her head covered with a hijab. For the first few days we couldn’t understand why she didn’t take her long government-issued coat off while in our homes or in the overheated government offices. She was using her coat to stay covered and didn’t understand the Canadian need for layering until a friendly Arabic speaker pointed it out.


When I visit her at home, she is dressed like any other young woman—leggings and colourful sweaters. The first time I saw her without her hijab, I was so taken aback by her youthful demeanour. I asked Linton if she thought Safa’s manner was different when she didn’t have her hijab on. To me she seems lighter and more playful. My friend thought about it, and said: “No, I think we treat her differently when she isn’t covered.”

The experience has also made me confront some of my own biases and assumptions about their culture. It surprised me, for instance, that Safa would breastfeed in public without a thought. She would nurse her toddler in front of men, both in her house and in public. It made me realize that my thoughts on the sexualization of women’s bodies and how that’s perceived in different cultures was overly simplistic.

And then, there are just those lovely moments that happen all the time, like the other day when I bought Safa her first frappuccino just to see her delight in the sweet frozen drink. She started laughing when we were in line. She made a few gestures and started walking with her hands awkwardly in her back pockets. Suddenly, I was laughing, too. She somehow explained to me that she had put her tunic on backward. And for a few minutes, we were just two friends laughing at the stupid things we all do sometimes.


There is conflict and tension, too. After a couple of months, the social worker chastised us for spoiling them and not forcing them to learn on their own, such as negotiating the subway to their appointments, or buying them too many new things. We ask ourselves those perennial parenting questions: Can we find the line between helicoptering and free-range? How are we going to let go after a few more months?


It can be uncomfortable telling adults how to spend their money, and they can chafe at the spending limits we enforce. But the government sets strict guidelines over settlement expenses, and the family’s budget is in line with a family who is on social assistance so that once the year is over they’ll know how to live with limited money. We keep strict watch over their budget—and so far, so good. We’ve made it clear that for the first year their job is to learn English because that is their ticket to upward mobility. They attend free English classes five days a week, and Ziad works on weekends at the local variety store where the owner speaks Arabic. He told us that has been working in a grocery store since he was five, and moving to Toronto wasn’t going to change that.

Once next March hits, they will have to pay for everything on their own. Ziad has lots of experience in the grocery business and I have no doubt he will find a full-time job and not go on social assistance. But working in a supermarket with limited English is not going to pay him much. Our group is considering some options of how to help, but we do not expect to support them after the first year.

Their apartment is free right now, but since the rent will be increased to $1,600 a month, we are searching for a liveable, safe apartment for $1,200—an almost impossible thing to find in Toronto. The crisis of affordable housing has become a common topic in our home and yet, I was surprised to hear my 13-year-old knowledgably discussing the issue with a family friend. Again, a reminder of the many lessons that we are all learning.

Ziad told us that coming to Canada was his dream for a better life. They do love it here—they are amazed at the kindness of strangers, the beauty of the city and how well-organized the government is. But life is harder than they expected and the reality of small apartments and dead-end jobs is not what they dreamed of. I hate that they are disappointed, but I know they have to learn about how to live in the real Canada, not the fantasy one. We try and act as a buffer against the hard realities of starting anew in a country where everything is different—the language, the customs, food and even the parenting. We learn a lot too—about services and settlement agencies, about Syrian culture, and even a smattering of Arabic. The bigger lessons—about what it means to be Canadian, about cultural divides and bridges, and the importance of reaching beyond your comfort zone are the ones that I hope have changed me, as well as the people around me.

There are many challenges ahead. Ziad is thinking about expanding out of the grocery business, but he needs to find time to improve his English and work, as well as gain new skills. Safa is expecting another baby in October, and the idea of working seems very far off in the future for her. But the reality is that they will need two incomes to survive in Toronto.


We’ve chosen to focus on the future and that means bringing their extended family to Toronto as well. As much as much they love Toronto, it won’t really be home until they are reunited with their parents and siblings; Ziad has a little brother who is only two years older than Ahmad and for the first few weeks Ahmad cried for his uncle, who he considers a brother.

Emma's daughter and Ahmad taking a silly selfie. Photo: Emma Waverman Emma's daughter and Ahmad taking a silly selfie. Photo: Emma Waverman

It seems crazy, and yet also obvious that we’d dive into the sponsorship process again. Now that Ziad, Safa, Ahmad and Aboudi are part of our family, we couldn’t leave the rest of their family in a dangerous situation. (Plus, we have the overconfidence of second-time parents—now that we know all the pitfalls, we want to do it right the second time.)

There are more hoops to jump through (including raising $48,000 for the family of five) and the wait time is probably another year. It’s hard to explain to Safa and Ziad that his parents won’t meet their baby until he or she is a year old—that Safa will have to go through this pregnancy and birth without a family member. Except us. We will be there to help her. We will hold her hand, take care of her boys and carry around a fussy baby. We will drive over in the middle of the night, worry and be bossy, and change diapers just as the grandparents would do.

I hope we proved ourselves willing to help that day in the hospital when Aboudi was sick. Thankfully, the jaundice wasn’t serious and he was sent home that day with test results showing he’s susceptible to jaundice and will need to be monitored. We all sighed a breath of relief, and wait until the next crisis happens—because it will. And we will be there. That is what it means to be connected.


If you would like to help us raise the money to bring Ziad and Safa’s family here, click here. Our group is the Withrow Park Refugee Response, we are listed last on the page. Please click to donate. 

Read more: I’m sponsoring a Syrian family #WelcometoCanada: Kids welcome their new Syrian friends with open arms Are we failing Syria’s children?

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