Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Program 

The Syrian Civil War has produced the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. United Neighbours is a grassroots community group that came together in the fall of 2015 in response to this crisis. With the support of St. Matthew’s United Church, the Regal Heights Residents Organization and key volunteers from other parts of the GTA (including some whom are former refugees themselves), we worked to raise well over $50,000 to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to come to Toronto.

In the spring of 2016, we found out that we'd been matched with the Alaalyan family, a Syrian family of 7, including 2 parents and 5 children (ages 11, 10, 6, 1 and 2 months). At the time, they were in Lebanon finalizing documentation. After much waiting and anticipation, the Alaalyan family arrived in Toronto in December 2016. For the first few months, they were set up in temporary housing, and in the spring of 2017, the United Neighbours worked with the Alaalyans to secure more long-term housing. 

In January 2020, United Neighbours sponsored a second Alaalyan Syrian family - six children and two parents. The five school-aged children were just getting settled in schools and the parents had begun language lessons when everything shut down to control the spread of COVID-19. 

This has presented many challenges for our sponsorship group. Initially we thought schools might reopen, but when it became clear that would not happen, we had to find ways for the children to learn online. The first problem was getting them computers and reliable WiFi, then we had to co-ordinate with teachers for them to join lessons. Video lessons by teachers were not a good option as the children did not speak English well enough to follow. Some teachers, including one of the ESL teachers, reached out and worked individually with the children. But they still needed support. Marla Fine has been working on science, English and math on Zoom with the two oldest boys (age 12 and 15) and Susan and John have been reading and doing math every day on Zoom with the two youngest girls (age 8 and 9). For the summer, we hope to get them into summer school as they have much catching up to do. The parents also have two sessions a week of English conversation with one of our volunteers.

The way children learn the fastest is by playing with other kids. It’s unfortunate they can’t make school friends this year. But the first Syrian family we sponsored are cousins and they have helped smooth the transition. For fun this summer, they wanted to play soccer with their cousins, so we bought soccer shoes. And everyone now has bicycles and helmets so they can ride. Not without mishap. The youngest girl, Kanana, fell off her bike and broke her arm last weekend.

We are thankful for everyone who supported us in this effort, financially and with gifts in kind. We thank God we were able to bring the family here before the pandemic, so they are less at risk of illness. They tell us they are happy to be here. As we continue through the first year with them in this strange time, we are adapting and learning.  

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