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“Gospel Hospitality” and One Refugee Family From Syria



A family sit by their tents in the port of Piraeus near Athens where thousands of refugees and migrants found a temporary shelter on March 15, 2016. European leaders are still hopeful that a deal with Turkey can be reached, and the EU said on March 15 that it had pushed back plans to overhaul the bloc's asylum system until an accord is place. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/23/16

After "five years of hell," Nova Scotia becomes home thanks to an Anglican parish

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When Kate Newton saw the photos of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last September, she began educating herself about the Syrian refugee crisis. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, ” she says. “I knew I had to do something … something more than what I’d normally do, like give a donation.”

After her husband brought up the idea of sponsoring a refugee, Newton — a nurse and mother of three young sons — e-mailed the rector of their parish, Paul Friesen, to ask if there was a way to do something through their church. Unbeknownst to her, other parishioners had individually e-mailed Friesen with the same question. Before long a committee of 15 was formed, and the process was underway to sponsor a refugee family.

St. Paul’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Canada and located in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a relatively small but engaged congregation of about 250 people. After the refugee committee was formed in late October, members raised $27,000 — the required amount to sponsor a family for one year — from within the church in just two months. (To date they’ve raised $37,000 — again without any outside fundraising.) The parish also pooled many of its members’ skills and resources to help the refugee family before and after arrival — from language help, to medical assistance, to a helpful spreadsheet created by a member who knew firsthand what family members need when they move to a new country.

Although Friesen was made honorary chair of the committee, he says the project has been a work of the laity. “My job was to be the supporter, the spokesman within the parish, an encouraging force, but I didn’t have to shoulder it. It was encouraging for me to see that it wasn’t a matter of adding a family to our parish — we knew this family would probably be Muslim — but a matter of extending Gospel hospitality to people who really needed it. I was watching our baptized members whole-heartedly engaged in this, not doing it for personal gain. There is so much in Scripture about receiving refugees, and I could say a lot about it theologically. … Most of the people involved are at Sunday liturgy, so it has a focus of being rooted it in the worshiping life of the parish.”

St. Paul’s is just one of many groups that has sponsored refugees in Atlantic Canada. As part of the Canadian government’s pledge to receive 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December (which was accomplished by the end of February), there are now more than 800 government-sponsored refugees in Nova Scotia, plus hundreds who have been privately sponsored. It’s been a massive undertaking in such a small province.

Being matched with a refugee family can happen in a couple of ways. In this case the committee used an expert skilled in immigration matters who was supplied by their diocese. They learned of the family they would be receiving in early December, and by the end of January, they heard that the family had been vetted and passed medicals.

“There was some anxiety after that because the government took a while to make up its mind, and the family had considered going to France as well,” recalls Friesen. “So we were wondering if the same family would actually be the one who would arrive.”

In the end it happened quickly. The church found out on Thursday, February 25 that the family was coming; they landed in Montreal on Saturday the 27th and arrived in Halifax on Monday the 29th.

The Almasalmeh family — husband, wife and three young sons ages 3, 9 and 13 — were met at the airport by 30 parishioners from St. Paul’s. For this family from northern Syria, the journey to Canada had been a long time coming. After war broke out and Mr. Almasalmeh, a high school French teacher, was imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian government, the family fled to Jordan where they had relatives, remaining there for three years without work.

Martine Osler, a parishioner at St. Paul’s for 28 years, helped to host the Almasalmehs when they arrived and has grown close to them. “The day we drove to the airport to meet them, I knew I was taking part in a life-changing event for them and for me,” she says. “Yesterday we moved them into their new apartment, and I was overwhelmed with emotion — it was a profoundly happy event that will stay with me forever, like the day I was married and when my two children were born.”

For Newton, it has been a life-changing experience as well. “Seeing it all come to fruition is a real gift,” she said. “Feeling that call and watching God work through me, and through everybody, to bring this into being — it’s been pretty significant in my life. The whole thing has strengthened my faith.”

It was also a family affair, something Newton wanted her children to be part of. “It’s the whole concept of ‘love your neighbor,'” she says. “I love seeing my boys with their kids, because it teaches them that even though other people are different, we are more similar than we are different. … We as a society, at least here, stick to our own. This is my first experience befriending a Muslim Arab family, and the experience has helped me look at other people differently, like women wearing the hijab for instance, because I don’t have the same fear, or the ‘not knowing.'”

The Almasalmeh family are settling into their new life and still have a lot of adjusting ahead — the children just began school this week, and the father will start working with career counselors to determine if he can be employed as a French teacher again, or if he will need to prepare for a new occupation. But the St. Paul’s parishioners will be on hand to help them with it all.

The family, Newton says, is beyond grateful.

“They just don’t have the words, they’ve said, to express how thankful they are. … The day after they arrived, we took them to the bank,” recalls Newton. “There was an Arabic-speaking employee helping them, and the mother told her that they’ve been through hell for five years and now they’re in heaven.”

Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia.

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