It starts with a cup of tea or coffee

Actually, everything starts with a cup of coffee for me these days. The day, a visit and meeting new people.

I’m not sure where this blog post belongs, nor what it will turn into but it’s been distracting me for days when I didn’t have time to write is so here goes.

It’s been 4 years now since I got involved in Gander Refugee Outreach and committed to spend a year helping Syrian families settle in Gander. That’s a lot of coffee under the bridge.

This post is about kindness.

It’s about doing good little things.

It’s about the amazing impact many people doing good things can have.

Four days after I retired in June 2016, Gander Refugee Outreach welcomed our first Syrian family to Gander. They arrived around 3 a.m., tired, alone and afraid. It was June but they were glad there was no snow because, really, they did not know what to expect.

Neither did we.

The day before they arrived, a tip lead me to my new friend Vicky who has become a lifeline for us all in her willingness to drop everything and translate from Arabic for us. She didn’t hesitate when asked. She hasn’t stopped helping every single day  or being available for the past 4 years.

We had food in their house that had been totally set up and stocked by volunteers from our committee and St. Martin’s Anglican Church. The house was fully furnished and we knew the sex and ages of children so set up bedrooms for one girl and a shared room for her two brothers. The dad told us that night that hisdaughter’s room was as big as the room they all shared as a family before arriving.

The Anglican Church, actually, the whole Diocese had lead in the fundraising for GRO to sponsor 5 families of Syrian Refugees. Every denomination in Gander has also assisted as well as service groups and individuals. The response has been overwhelming in it’s generosity. Clothing and toys came from Fogo Island, Lumsden and Gander Bay just to name a few of the communities.

We let the family sleep and settle the first day and on Thursday I knocked on the door and lead them up the street to the Gander COOP store. The COOP’s 50/50 fundraising charity had donated a gift card for each Syrian family so we were going to look and see if they wanted to buy groceries.

Only a few minutes in the store, we were approached by the lady in charge of the bakery. She wondered if the children could have a cookie. Vicky translated and we were quickly eating cookies and I learned my first Arabic word. “Chocolat” (pronounced like the French, luckily for me) is cookie or chocolate cookie. Knowing that has kept me on the good side of ten Syrian kids.

The first visit was a bit overwhelming and the prices for familiar items were alarming so we just picked up a couple of items and made our way home. At least we knew, if they needed something, they could walk and they have a gift card to pay. We knew they understood dollars as a currency having lived in Lebanon and we could see shopping skills like weighing fruit and figuring out the price. I also saw shock at the prices as they did quick  calculations.

The butcher quickly greeted us and asked if they were looking for Halal meat products. Muslim custom requires a specific procedure when butchering meats. COOP offers some products that are certified Halal and he advised is that Dominion offered some products too.

As we left, suddenly there seemed to be a lull at the cash and all of the COOP staff was watching and smiling and saying hi. The impact of this welcome is huge. I don’t know if the families even realized, but I did. Everyone was happy they were there and wondering how they would make out in Gander.

We also were greeted with a whole fleet of smiling people as we walked home. People parked in cars in the town square waved and smiled. Our community had been working hard for their arrival and everyone was glad to see them. I’m sure it was a bit overwhelming for our family but as a volunteer, it was also extremely encouraging.

Using coaxing and exaggerated hand signals, I then lead them a short distance to see there was a playground very close to their house. Everyone was excited until we realized it was all wet from the rain. Again though, we knew they now had one more place to go and they were so excited when they turned around and realized they could see their house from the playground. They knew how to get back and forth.

For the first few days the committee was almost tripping over each other to help with setting up bank accounts, doctor appointments, dentists and other daily needs. A dentist sponsored the children for tennis so then rides to tennis needed to be arranged.

We were really good at this!

Then we got word another family was arriving and a second house was outfitted with help from the Fraser Road United Church. I didn’t make it to the airport for their arrival but went the next day and on behalf of GRO provided them with a cell phone for local calls with Vicky’s number and mine. I took them some spices as a gift and they figured out what they were and were thankful.

Then I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t bring Vicky!

Using my tablet, I drew a slide and swings and asked if they’d like to go to the park. Again, only a short walk, we went to the playground at the school. I’m not sure who was more excited. This dad was able to communicate me over and over there was no play for them where they were before coming to Gander.

They explained have a daughter in Lebanon so I brought them home and using Wi-Fi they called home and spoke to her and spent an hour sitting around a phone cooing to a month old grand daughter.

It sounds the same in English and Arabic when you miss a baby.

We taught the families the short cuts to walk from one family home to the other and we followed our plan from the first family and did shopping, banking and set up some appointments.

The families would welcome us and invite us in and offer tea or coffee on every visit. Gradually using signs and dictionaries and translating apps we would figure out they needed something fixed or to go shopping or perhaps a household item that was not in the house.

Going to the church were donations were stored for all five families must have been a bit like Costco after five years of war in their own country. They could pick from hand made quilts to second hand and brand new furniture and housewares.

Concerned that one lady wanted a pressure cooker we stopped at Vicky’s pizza restaurant to make sure they knew what it was. Indeed they did. We thought only Newfoundlanders used those!

I’d catch myself now and then forgetting that they had a perfectly normal life over five years ago. Syria was a very prosperous country in many ways and the use of technology like cell phones was every day and easy. I would be explaining things they understood perfectly from their previous lives.

Our committee worked with both families and divided up tasks and roles. School started finally for both children and  adults and a routine was established.

Then we got the call again.

Family number three was arriving Sept 21 and family number four, a week later.

Our third family was a private sponsorship and their sponsors had prepared for them to live in their house with them until they were able to provide for themselves. We knew that the father had work that was easily done by computer from anywhere in the world so the support from the committee was basic. Their sponsors handled the transportation and orientation to Gander. Because the family spoke fluent English, they were able to take over much of their own arrangements after just some basic support.

One at a time, over the summer and into late September we welcomed families until the night of the fourth family’s arrival when I realized we were half GRO committee members and half Syrians at the airport at 3 a.m. The family was greated by others who spoke their language and understood their experience.

As I’ve learned they say in Arabic; “Fifty fifty.” (Who knew THAT was an Arabic term?) We were half and half in the arrivals lounge.

Each family made sure to attend to welcome the next and subsequent families. They spoke to the new families and reassured them that they would be okay in Gander and we’d then take families and luggage to their waiting home.

Throughout this whole experience, I’ve used Facebook to make requests when we see a need and to keep the community aware of our work and stories about other refugees across Canada.

I come home and bags of clothing have been dropped off in donation. Bicycles and toys and books have been provided for just about every child.

People stop me in stores or send me messages asking if there is anything we need. We refer them to the local Goodwills when the items are not needed by us and our families now donate to Goodwill when they no longer need something out outgrow it. They also shop their as money is tight and they are good shoppers.

We just watched our fourth Santa Claus parade together in 2019 and all families are still working hard in Gander at their jobs and in school. They remain very grateful as do I.

Their thank yous are not reflex. They are heartful and sincere. A thank you at the door is often followed by a Facebook message or emoticon expressing again how much each gesture, large or small, is appreciated. Hugs and kisses from the women and beautiful smiles warm my heart and remind me that I get as well as I give.

As you spend Christmas this year, take time for a coffee with friends and to look around at all the people around us who feel safe and grateful to be our neighbours.  Merry Christma






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