Syrian refugee family settles in Wingham after years-long journey - July 6, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
As of last week, Wingham officially became home for a family of five refugees fleeing the ongoing danger and uncertainty in Syria.
Richard Hall of the Wingham United Church has been one of the leaders of the project, which has required a year and a half of planning, effort and fundraising, but he says his church is only one part of the puzzle.
The Mustafa family fled Aleppo, Syria three and a half years ago and began a journey that would eventually bring them to Wingham.
Aleppo has been the centre of major conflict in the country for years now. Prior to the Syrian Civil War, it was the country’s largest city.
The family’s journey away from Syria began with travelling towards the Turkish border. In Turkey, the Mustafas had some distant family members. However, due to Turkey’s regulations, if the Mustafas arrived at the border and attempted to appeal for refugee status, it’s likely they would have been turned away.
In addition to the country’s policies, with the Mustafas being Kurdish, there is a disdain for the Kurds with the Turks, and the family would have been walking into a dangerous situation.
So when the family got to the border, instead of making their way into the country’s immigration office, they went to the United Nations office, which accepted them as refugees of the Syrian conflict.
However, there was a snag in the paperwork, as Siham, the mother of the family, applied for and received refugee status for herself, her son Mustafa and her daughter Sevim. Because Mohamad, the father of the family, wasn’t present when the application was filled out, he wasn’t part of the application, so when the United Nations granted the family refugee status, Mohamad wasn’t part of that classification.
Siham was then faced with an ultimatum. She could accept the application with her children and leave her husband behind, or she could re-apply and hope that they would all be deemed refugees. She re-applied and while the process took a while, the whole family was eventually granted refugee status.
During this time, the family lived at a refugee camp near Istanbul, which Hall says was a very rough and poor environment for the family.
Once the family was granted refugee status, there was another snag in the process as Siham found out that she was pregnant with the family’s third child and she wouldn’t be able to travel until their son Joan (pronounced John) was born.
Joan was born on March 30 and once the family was settled, the path was clear for them to come to Canada just days ahead of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebration.
The family landed at Pearson Airport in Mississauga and, Hall says, both sides were confused and didn’t know what to expect.
The Mustafas were expecting to live in another refugee camp. They didn’t know that they would have a home of their own and a supportive community waiting for them. In fact, they didn’t even know they were being picked up at the airport.
Hall says that the group from Wingham was in the same boat. He didn’t know anything about the family other than their names and that he and the others should wait at the International Arrivals section of the airport and wait for them to land.
Upon landing and meeting the people who would bring them to Wingham, the family was very grateful and they were amazed with what they would see in the next few days in Huron County.
Hall says there was great joy in the Mustafas the first time they saw livestock, something they had never seen before in Syria or along their travels.
He says that the parents only knew two things about Canada before they landed: that Canada was turning 150 this year and that it was a welcoming country for refugees.
Since arriving, they have made brief trips to various grocery or clothing stores in order to get them on their feet and Hall says that the entire community has been very welcoming to the Mustafa family.
Their Frances Street home is furnished completely thanks to the generosity of the community and donations that have been collected in the last year and a half, Hall said. That includes toys for the children and clothing for the entire family.
On the Wingham side of things, Hall said that the community stepped up very early in the refugee crisis and volunteered to bring in and support a family.
The first family that was due to come to Wingham eventually had its refugee status revoked, Hall said, as the father of the family had been declared a refugee, but then re-entered Syria at some point, which cancels out that declaration.
Meanwhile, the committee was working hard on fundraisers and community events to raise money and collect items for the family when they arrived.
Those efforts were so successful, Hall said, that the committee is no longer looking for donations. The group must pay for the family’s first month of rent and settlement fees, while the government will pay for months two through seven before the group is again required to pay for the final five months.
After the one-year mark, the family is released from the refugee program. Hall says that Mohamad was a licensed carpenter in Syria, but he is not yet licensed to work in Canada.
In the meantime, both Mohamad and Siham are taking English as a second language courses in Listowel, as no one in the family speaks any English.
Through Google Translator, Mohammad said that he and his family are grateful to the Canadian government and the Canadian people for taking them in.
Hall says that bringing the Mustafa family to Wingham couldn’t have happened without the hard work and dedication of the nearly 70 committee members who have worked on the project since its inception – not to mention the generous members of the community who have donated and welcomed the family in recent weeks.
He also said that other area churches in Wingham, Teeswater and Bluevale and Listowel, as well as service clubs like the Lions and the Legion all pulled together to bring the family to the community.
After the first year of the process, they’ll become independent of their sponsor community and the family will begin the process of acquiring citizenship.
“This was a major project for a small rural church,” Hall said. “Everyone really pulled together to help to pull it off.”