REFUGEE PROJECT - The project to bring four refugee families is more than just a ministerial project, the entire Town of Sylvan Lake has gotten involved in some way, from children to adults.                                Photo Submitted by Leigh Baker/Sylvan Lake Refugee Project

REFUGEE PROJECT - The project to bring four refugee families is more than just a ministerial project, the entire Town of Sylvan Lake has gotten involved in some way, from children to adults. Photo Submitted by Leigh Baker/Sylvan Lake Refugee Project

Middle Eastern refugees coming to Sylvan Lake

The Sylvan Lake Refugee Project aims to bring four families to Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lakers are banning together to bring four families in need to Canada. In total the Sylvan Lake Refugee Project is working to bring a total of 19 people to their new home in Sylvan Lake through private sponsorship.

The program was created through the Sylvan Lake Ministerial Association when it was decided to help those in the greatest need; families from war-torn countries ripped from their homes with no chance of returning. The four families are from Iraq and Libya.

“The families we have chosen are considered particularly vulnerable and will not be able to return home,” said Leigh Baker, Sylvan Lake Refugee Project communication coordinator, in an email.

The Canadian Government has rules and mandates in place for bringing refugees into the country, such as having no other enduring or durable solution, and the country where they have sought refuge is not able to offer citizenship, benefit or permanent employment. The Sylvan Lake Refugee Project also wanted to make sure of a few details before committing to bring these families to the community.

Onsy Tawadrous, a spokesperson for the project, has met each of the families vetted to be sponsored. Most recently he travelled to Lebanon in April to meet with the families.

“It was very important to us to know everything we can about the families,” Tawadrous explained in a recent in-person interview.

In getting to know these families, Tawadrous said any fears or concerns he may have had were eliminated.

On his last visit in April the families were eager to ask questions about Canada. According to Tawadrous, it was these questions about Canada that set his fears to rest.

“They were very concerned about finding a job and supporting their families,” he explained.

Tawadrous said the families wanted to know what the job markets were like, what it was like to learn English and how long it could take to integrate into the community.

They were also very curious about what Canada was like in the winter, asking if citizens just stayed inside and essentially hibernated all winter.

“I showed them pictures of people playing out on the lake in the winter and told them we do not shut down in the cold,” Tawadrous said. “They couldn’t believe it.”

The families chosen for sponsorship were picked from a number of eligible candidates for private sponsorship. The choice was difficult for the committee members, who ultimately chose the four families as the best choice.

According to Tawadrous, each of these families come from a place they would not be able to return to. Not only that, the country they currently reside in, Lebanon, does not grant refugees citizenship. The families would always be refugees.

“They wouldn’t be able to work proper, full-time jobs, or have a full education. They wouldn’t be citizens,” said Tawadrous. “It would be like being second class citizens.”

The families have gone through tremendous hardships, both while living in their home countries and fleeing. According to a Facebook post by the Sylvan Lake Refugee Project, one family from Iraq suffered through great pain, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The family was originally from Baghdad, and saw Iraq become unsafe with the spread of weapons on the street, theft, kidnapping and killing of women, children and youth.

“Like all mothers, my only concern is to raise my children in a good way, prepare them for the future, care for them and protect them from risks and diseases,” Manal’s, the mother of the family from Iraq, story says on Facebook.

This family said they kept the words of God close, even during times of extreme hardship – such as watching a Christian church near their apartment be overrun by terrorists who killed those inside.

Manal’s story said the attack on the church made a huge impact on her children’s mental state after experiencing “explosions and shootings” so near to their home. Tawadrous said Manal’s story is not unusual and all of the families chosen to come to Canada and live in Sylvan Lake have had similar experiences.

“We want to be able to give them a better life, hope for themselves and their children,” said Tawadrous.

There have been concerns over bringing four families to Sylvan Lake from the Middle East.

Each of the concerns have been listened to by the committee members and seriously talked about and solutions have been made, based on Sylvan Lakers banning together to bring four families in need to Canada.

Concerns about safety are very real and very valid, as are ones about these families coming and not being Canadian, not becoming a member of the Canadian Mosaic.

“Each family is ready to become Canadian and know they are to be members of the community and not seclude themselves,” said Tawadrous.

According to Tawadrous, it is very important for refugees and immigrants to integrate themselves into the culture and not seclude themselves with only other immigrants from their home country.

“This will be their home, there is no going back. They all know this and want to become a member of the community,” he said.

When discussing safety and security, the committee members took the concerns very seriously. Each family chosen was vetted and had references and security checks – not to mention the Canadian Government checks and screenings.

“Some of these families I knew myself and others were recommended to us from trustworthy sources,” Tawadrous said

“It isn’t racist to be concerned or to have fears of safety. Everyone has every right to their fears and concerns.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to just sponsor a family. There is also a financial component to the process.

As private sponsors, the Sylvan Lake Refugee Project will be responsible for these families for the first year they are in Canada. That includes housing, furniture, clothing, schooling and food.

Based on the Government of Canada’s suggestion of funding, plus a little extra just in case, the Refugee Project is fundraising to host these families. To support these families for at least the first year, the project plans to raise more than $120,000.

The next fundraiser the group is working on is a walkathon on June 23. The walk begins at 6 p.m. with an opening statement from Mayor Sean McIntyre.

The walkathon will cover five kilometres beginning and ending at the Alliance Church.

Tawadrous says this project has reached more than just church members of the various churches in Sylvan Lake, all of which are actively involved in the project.

“This is a town-wide project, something everyone, young and old, have gotten behind.”

The plan is to have money in place for when the first refugees arrive, which Tawadrous says could be at any time. The first family has already gone through most of their screening process and is currently waiting on their visas.

“We are hoping to have all four families arrive in Canada before the end of the year,” said Tawadrous.

Anyone interested can make a donation to the project online as well at www.canadahelps.org/dn/20284 and using the drop down menu to choose Sylvan Lake Refugee Project.

More information about the project can be found on the Sylvan Lake Refugee Project Facebook page or by contacting the Alliance Community Church at 403-887-8811.