When Linda Hemerez was hired to clean the building of All Saints, King City, she had no idea the turn her life was about to take.
One day while cleaning, she had a conversation with the Rev. Canon Nicola Skinner, who was the incumbent at the time. (Canon Skinner is now the incumbent of Grace Church, Markham and the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Ann Green is the incumbent of All Saints.)
During the conversation, Ms. Hemerez said she was from Syria and that her parents, brother, his wife and their child were refugees living in Lebanon after fleeing the civil war in her homeland. Canon Skinner asked if she wanted help in sponsoring them to come to Canada.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Ms. Hemerez. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ and Nicola said yes.”
Ms. Hemerez was ecstatic. “I was so happy that I called my whole family – everyone – to say we have help. It was my dream to have my parents here in Canada.”
The cost of sponsoring the family was going to be $45,000, more than All Saints could bear alone, so Canon Skinner reached out to five other churches – Holy Trinity, Thornhill, All Saints, Collingwood, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, King City, King City United Church and York Pines United Church in Kettleby. They formed the Church Refugee Resettlement Committee and pledged $48,000.
Canon Skinner left for Grace Church, Markham soon afterwards and Bishop George Elliott, the former area bishop of York-Simcoe, took over as chair of the committee. The group worked with AURA (Anglican-United Refugee Alliance) on the paperwork and raised the necessary funds. The family arrived in Canada last October and is now living in a townhouse near Ms. Hemerez in Woodbridge.
“It has made me realize there are still good people in the world,” she says. “After what happened in Syria and Iraq, I started to wonder what it’s all for. But after this, I realize there are so many good people. I really appreciate what they’ve done. Whatever I do for them, it will be nothing compared to what they did for me.”
Ms. Hemerez and her family expressed their thanks by hosting a dinner at All Saints on Feb. 25 for those who took part in the sponsorship. The dinner wasn’t the only occasion in which the family expressed its gratitude. At a Lessons and Carols service at the church last December, Ms. Hemerez’s father, Elia Aslan, who does not speak English, surprised everybody by walking to the front of the church and singing a Christmas blessing in Arabic.
“It had everybody in tears,” recalls Bishop Elliott. “We were absolutely stunned. It was one of those God moments.”
The moment was particularly poignant because Mr. Aslan’s father fled to Syria to escape the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the 1920s. “He went to Syria where his family could live peacefully, and now his son and his family have come to Canada to find a place where they can live in peace,” says Bishop Elliott.
The family, which is Chaldean Eastern-Rite Catholic, has been warmly received by the participating churches. The senior Mr. Aslan is a regular worshipper at All Saints and follows the service using an Arabic prayer book.
The work of the sponsorship committee isn’t over. It’s currently working on sponsoring eight cousins of a resident of King City. The cousins, originally from northern Iraq, are currently living in Turkey while they wait for an interview with Canadian officials.
Bishop Elliott started helping refugees while serving as a curate at St. Thomas a Becket in Mississauga in 1979-80, when he was the local coordinator of Operation Lifeline. The program helped more than 120 Vietnamese families settle in Canada.
He says there are strong parallels between then and now. “You’re dealing with people who have been through a tremendous amount of trauma and when they get here are unbelievably grateful and thankful for the opportunity that’s been provided for them.”