Shortly after arriving in Toronto, a refugee family from Iraq had a picnic on Toronto Islands. As they were waiting to take the ferry back to the mainland, the father gazed at the city skyline and said, “This is my town. This is our new home.”
The father was a human rights lawyer in Baghdad and a member of the country’s Sunni minority. One day he received a letter with a bullet in it, along with a note that he and his family would be killed. The family left Baghdad and eventually crossed over into Jordan, becoming refugees. With the help of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, they arrived here in September.
Over the past five years, Grace Church on-the-Hill has helped three refugee families – two from Syria and one from Iraq – come to Canada. It’s a remarkable achievement, considering how much work and money is involved.
“It’s probably the most worthwhile thing I’ve done in my life,” says Phil Arthur, co-chair of the church’s refugee committee.
The church’s recent refugee efforts began in 2014 after a visit by the Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian-born, London-based Anglican priest who is the head of a charity that provides programs for peace and reconciliation among young people in the Middle East. Following an impassioned address by Mr. Nassar about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the church formed a refugee sponsorship committee and began taking the necessary steps to bring a family to Canada.
Working with AURA (the Anglican United Refugee Alliance), the church sponsored Mr. Nassar’s nephew and his wife, George and Maria Nasra, who had fled Syria for Lebanon. The couple arrived in Toronto in 2016 and, with the help of parishioners, eventually found jobs in their fields and an apartment. They now have a baby and are members of the church.
The second family had also fled from Syria to Lebanon, but their situation was more challenging. “They were holed up in an apartment in Beirut, not doing very well, and said they would like to send their daughter to school,” explains Mr. Arthur. With some of the funds it had raised for the sponsorship, the church was able to pay for her to go to school. “She was incredibly happy, as were her parents,” he says.
The family, Gergi and Nadin Hoosh and their daughter Carla, arrived in Toronto in 2018 and parishioners once again undertook a multitude of tasks to get them settled, including providing accommodations, finding English classes, helping the parents find jobs in their fields and enrolling the daughter in school. The family have since become members of the church.
Mr. Arthur learned about the third family’s plight from a friend. Shortly after the human rights lawyer and his family – his wife and three sons – left Baghdad for Jordan, a death squad showed up at their house. The family had made it to Amman, Jordan’s capital.
Working with AURA, the church once again stepped up to the plate, raising the necessary funds to bring the family to Canada. With the help of parishioners, Sabah and Asmaa Alwan and their sons have found an apartment, the three boys are enrolled in school, and the parents are taking English lessons and exploring job options.
Bringing the three families to Canada has taken a lot of work and money – at least $35,000 per family – but Mr. Arthur says it has been worth it. “It’s been very rewarding for the congregation as a whole,” he says. “We do a lot of outreach, but this has touched parishioners more than anything we’ve done. One thing that has delighted me has been the enthusiasm of the volunteers. The talent we have here is just amazing.”
Reflecting on the power of outreach work like refugee sponsorship, the Rev. Canon Peter Walker, incumbent of Grace Church on-the-Hill, says, “The more we give away to others, the more we are given, and the more we receive. The more energy and effort we do on behalf of others, the more we truly become who we, as a community, are called to be.”