The Rev. Canon Stephen Peake and his wife Sarah were taking one of their sons back to university in Ottawa when they got a phone call that the refugee family from Syria they were helping to sponsor would be landing in Toronto that night.
“It was very short notice and our committee went into high gear,” recalls Canon Peake, the incumbent of St. Bride, Clarkson, a community in the south-west corner of Mississauga.
The next day – Dec. 31 – Canon Peake and some members of the church’s refugee sponsorship committee drove to a hotel near Pearson International Airport to meet the family – Riad Al-Hussein, his wife Aisha and their three young children. None of the newcomers could speak English so one of Canon Peake’s group wrote on a sign in Arabic. Mr. Al-Hussein saw it and stepped forward, pointing to himself.
“We were really excited to meet them,” says Canon Peake, adding that it was “a bit of a madhouse” for the next two days as the family stayed in a motel in Clarkson while members of the refugee committee and other parishioners scrambled to buy groceries, collect furniture and secure permanent housing.
The committee signed the lease on a townhouse about a kilometre from the church and the family moved into their new home. For the first time in years, they didn’t have to worry about violence.
“Riad kept saying ‘Canada salaam,’” says Canon Peake. (Salaam is a salutation meaning “peace,” most often used in Islamic countries.) “After a couple of days they were beginning to realize how peaceful Canada is compared to where they were.”
Although Mr. Al-Hussein couldn’t speak English, he started to tell his story. Using his cell phone, he showed a picture of his brother to Canon Peake and made the sound of gunshots. Later, Mr. Al-Hussein pointed to one of his young sons and then back to his brother’s photo, indicating that he had been shot in front of the boy.
Canon Peake believes the family, who are Muslim, fled Syria some years ago before living in Lebanon. None of the children, age 7 and under, have been to school – a situation that will soon change. The kids are being accessed and, after being given immunization shots, will be starting school.
In addition to St. Bride’s, the family is receiving help from the nearby Polycultural Centre, which provides Arabic-speaking people to arrange things like ESL classes, immunizations and health care. Although the parents are keen to find jobs, their first priority is to learn English, says Canon Peake. “They’re really keen to learn English and work. They’re highly motivated to get things on track.”
He says this is the first time since sponsoring a Vietnamese family in the 1970s that St. Bride’s has sponsored a refugee family. It started last fall when he was approached by three people in one day who asked if the church was going to do anything to help with the growing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. He contacted Ian McBride, the executive director of AURA (the Anglican United Refugee Alliance), who came to a meeting at the church. About 45 people attended – a tremendous show of support.
What happened next really surprised by Mr. McBride and Canon Peake, who explains: “I told the congregation on a Sunday morning, I think there’s a lot of support for this, but before I sign on the dotted line I want to have a sense that we’re going to be able to come up with the $40,000 that we’re going to need to support this family in Clarkson. By the next Sunday, we had $44,000.”
He adds: “People have really come on board. They’ve donated everything we’ve needed.”
He plans to invite the family to church but is in no rush. “I’m going to invite the family to come to the church at some point if they’re comfortable doing that. They’re fairly devout Muslims so it might be uncomfortable for them or it might not be. Right now, we’re just building a good friendship with them.”
He says helping to bring the family to Canada and settling them in Clarkson has been hugely fulfilling for him personally. “I love it. I went morning-to-night for two days in a row when they first arrived and I felt so energized by it.”
The church has been changed by it, too. “It’s certainly changed the people who have been directly involved, in terms of feeling like this is a way of really putting faith into action. It’s impacted the wider congregation in that it has given them a chance to also share and make this happen.”