It has been almost one year since the Syrian family of eight we are sponsoring has arrived in Toronto. As we are waiting for a second family to arrive, it’s time to take stock. It has been an extremely eventful, rewarding, but also challenging year. Here are some of the lessons we have learned.*
It’s a life-changing experience
Although the past year has at times been challenging and frustrating, by and large the sponsorship has been one of the most rewarding experiences many of us have ever had. We have not only gained the friendship of a Syrian newcomer family, but we have also grown together as a group and felt part of a larger community, of something bigger than ourselves. While sponsoring a family is a small act in the big scheme of things, it has completely transformed not only this family’s, but also our lives in more ways than we could have imagined.
It’s a big commitment
Several times it hit us what a big commitment we had taken on. All of a sudden we were responsible for eight complete strangers who did not speak a word of English, had never traveled anywhere besides Syria and Lebanon and did not know how things worked in Canada. It was very daunting - almost like adopting a child. Especially at the beginning, settling in the family was very time-consuming and quite challenging because we did not speak each other’s language. The commitment does not stop once the family has moved into an apartment, has all their documents and is enrolled in English lessons. Not only does the practical support continue, but it becomes increasingly an emotional commitment, one that does not stop once the sponsorship year is over. Several of us have formed strong ties with the family, and we hope that the sponsorship relationship will turn into a lasting friendship.
|The family invited us to an Iftar meal during their first Ramadan in Canada|
It takes a village
We are very fortunate that the members of our group have a wide range of professional backgrounds - such as health, education and human resources - which made dividing and tackling the multitude of tasks of the settlement process a lot easier. But it was much more than our group that helped settle in the family. Several dentists have provided their services for free. A family we did not previously know, offered temporary housing. Several community groups collected goods and clothes for newcomers. Within hours of sending a request to our networks, a complete set of baby items – from a stroller to a crib – had been donated for the soon-to-arrive newest member of the family. Ryerson students mentored one of the sons of the family who wants to study here. Several organizations, such as the Arab community center, have given us invaluable support when needed. This amazing outpouring of help from many Canadians has been one of the most positive experiences during our sponsorship year.
Before we took on the sponsorship, an experienced private sponsor gave us an important piece of advice that helped us manage expectations from the outset: It’s important to remember that the sponsors’ primary job is to settle in refugees as best as they can. If they become friends with the newcomers, that’s an added bonus, but don’t be disappointed if this does not happen, or if you don’t get along. (Luckily for us, we got on really well with the family from day one).
We also realized that a number of our expectations for settling in a newcomer family are driven by our cultural, social and educational background and bias – such as that women should be looking for work. It is important to communicate openly, to recognize cultural and social differences and adjust expectations.
None of our group members had a lot of experience with Arab culture and a few mistakes were made. During one of our first visits to the family, for example, I kissed both the women and the men on the cheeks, suddenly realizing that this was probably a complete cultural faux pas. The family was completely unfazed, however, and has always been very forgiving and tolerant of our ignorance. Despite our cultural and social differences, we share a common humanity and emotional bond, and we found that it’s better to jump right in and make a few mistakes than being too shy and scared to interact with newcomers from a different culture with limited knowledge of English.
Because the family we are sponsoring did initially not speak any English and did not know their way around, we took on a large number of jobs at the beginning – booking doctor and other appointments, for example, picking them up and driving them around, sometimes making decisions on their behalf. It is a fine line between helping people settle in and infantilizing them, making them dependent on our support. This goes both ways – the family often continued to ask for support even when we felt they could take on the task themselves. It is not always easy to figure out the right balance.
Being in Canada does not mean being happy ever after
Some people may expect that refugees’ problems are over once they reach Canada, where they are safe and have a roof over their heads. But while they are physically here – and grateful for the warm welcome they have received in Canada - their minds are often still back home. Gruesome images and news reports from the war in Syria are continuously coming in on various electronic devices. There is a constant stream of calls and messages from loved ones who are still in Syria or are refugees in neighbouring countries. The constant worry, and the guilt of being here and not being able to help, can be overwhelming, and makes settling in more difficult. Many sponsorship groups will face the challenge of being asked to sponsor additional family members.
Don’t let setbacks get you down
As with many things in life, sponsoring a refugee family is not always smooth sailing. There are many ups but also quite a few downs - unexpected challenges and frustrations. It is important to accept that setbacks are normal - it does not mean that the settlement is unsuccessful.
|Some of the Ripple Refugee group members at a meeting|
Have a strong core groupWhile our group is relatively big, only a handful of people are actively engaged on a regular basis. Some members are traveling a lot, others are busy with work and family and only sporadically interact with our sponsored family. It is vital to have a strong leader and a small group of committed, hands-on members who continuously give the sponsored family not only practical, but also emotional support throughout the year. Before deciding to sponsor refugees, groups should discuss very clearly if members are around throughout the year, and are willing to be involved on a regular basis. Less engaged members can support the settlement activities on an ad hoc basis.
Do your homework
When we decided to sponsor refugees there were not many resources available. This has changed, and I would highly recommend to anyone thinking about sponsorship to either do a training with the Refugee SponsorshipTraining Program , or read one of the resources that are available, such as the Lifeline Syria sponsorship handbook.
*These personal reflections were written by RRP member Claudia Blume and don’t necessarily reflect the views of all members of the group