The sound of laughter floats through the air as I approach the doors to the Ladner United Church and through the glass I can see flashes of colours and shapes as children rush by immersed in play.
Inside the room a girl is swatting at a balloon to thwart gravity’s attempts to return it to earth, while two young boys are kicking around a bright green ball. Small sibling sisters clutch Barbie dolls in their hands and walk to and fro while older brothers dive to return the badminton shuttlecock.
It’s a scene commonplace in Canada but what makes this one so special is that all of these children are from Syria, just a few months removed from refugee camps and the wartorn ruins of the Middle East.
These families have been sponsored by the Delta Safe Haven, a group of church volunteers and community members, headed up by the Rev. Jim Short and Diane Schmidt, in collaboration with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. to resettle Syrian refugees.
Mansour and Ensaf Al Nuaimi are from Daraa, a city on the border of Jordan roughly the size of Delta. When the Syrian conflict began they stayed for a year in the hope things would get better, but were forced to flee across the border into a refugee camp.
“Before the war everything was fine,” said the couple through an Arabic interpreter. “The kids would be able to go to school and everything was normal. But once the war started it was difficult.”
The family arrived in Toronto on Dec. 20, 2015, with four of their six children (two are in their twenties and stayed behind), and then flew to Vancouver a day later where they stayed in a hotel for 17 days before moving to Ladner.
Coming from a predominantly Muslim country, the couple arrived in time for Christmas and New Year’s and said they enjoyed seeing the bright and colourful lights and interesting traditions of Canadians.
“It was great. It was very interesting and we actually took part in the celebrations of Christmas. At midnight we saw the fireworks.”
The family moved into an apartment in Ladner rented out by Delta Safe Haven committee member Nancy Willborn. Her long-term tenants had recently given their notice and she called it “serendipitous” that her place became available to offer to refugees.
“I did it because I just felt compelled and I was able financially,” recalls Nancy. “It felt like the right thing to do.”
Her children go to the same school as the Syrian children now and she said despite the cultural differences they are learning to fit in. Nancy volunteers at the school as well, so she was there during the first week to watch her son teach the children Canadian schoolyard games.
“When the Syrian boy did well and he found the kid in ‘Manhunt’ they congratulated him. I saw them tap him on the back like, ‘good job, you’re getting the game.’ They used lots of hand signals. So that was nice to see. The smiles on the faces of the kids at the playground.”
Sylvia Bishop, a member of municipal council, is a committee member of Delta Safe Haven. Although she’s donating her time and energy to help refugees, Sylvia doesn’t quite see it that way.
“My parents were immigrants after the Second World War and it wasn’t great to be a German at that time,” she says. “But Canada received them and then grew up as a first generation Canadian. So I was very interested in participating because Canada offers hope and safety and the opportunity to rebuild a life that is otherwise shattered and in some cases destroyed from wherever you come from.”
Sylvia says her family felt gratitude for what the country offered and that’s why she’s going to “pay it forward” to the next generations of refugees and immigrants.
“My father came with a suitcase of books and $5 in his pocket in 1951 and my mother came six weeks later. They started with nothing and built something.”
Diane Schmidt, co-chair of Delta Safe Haven committee, says they received an outpouring of support and volunteers from the community. Delta Safe Haven has seven people who speak Arabic, there are ESL teachers for the families, they have drivers for shopping, and even childcare providers.
“It’s totally amazing what’s come to us with our volunteers,” says Diane. “They’re so passionate and dedicated and whatever experience we need it seems like it appears.”
The Delta Safe Haven committee’s top priority was to make the new families feel at home, something one might think would be difficult with a culture used to semi-mediterranean weather arriving in Canada in winter.
But Mansour and Elsaf say the big difference has nothing to do with the chilly weather, but rather the way they’re treated by people on the street and merchants in the shops.
“It’s respecting humans as humans,” the couple say through an interpreter. “Especially the children, they’ve been treated in a very humane way. That’s the biggest difference.”
In fact the families are finding most things they could get back home, like food, are readily available here. It’s just that the sticker price is sometimes something of a shock.
“It’s a little bit more expensive here,” say the couple and the room erupts in knowing laughter.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of volunteering are the interactions with the children, according to Betty McKenzie, treasurer for Ladner United Chuch.
“It was the most emotional thing… and it still gets me every time,” she says, her voice tightening, “that I’ve ever done I think. It’s been so rewarding and the kids are just wonderful. I just really enjoy watching them and seeing how they’re adapting to things.”
Betty says she had an opportunity to babysit recently for five hours and saw how lively the children can be. And just like any kids when it came time to put them to bed they didn’t want to sleep.
However, nobody needs to worry about them being unable to get up in the morning to go to school.
“We’re not sure how much schooling they got in a refugee camp or what happened but they’re keen,” says Betty.
Their parents agree.
“The kids are very happy, they’re making friends and they’re learning the language one bit at a time. It’s slow, right? Slowly but surely. It’s a huge difference.”
Perhaps the most remarkable part in all of this is that the church is helping these families despite the fact they’re Muslim.
“I believe that Jesus’ command in the gospel is never qualified by any of our human categories,” says the Rev. Jim Short. “And He lived His life that way. He kind of went across the barriers in His own society. And so as Christians, as any person of good heart would, whether they’re Christian or not, I think you would want to help someone in need.”
Jim says it’s true that some churches chose only to sponsor Christians but they decided early on not to make those distinctions.
“Our interpreter has a great phrase whenever this comes up,” he adds. “We are one world.”
Delta Safe Haven is also helping those refugees who want to receive Islamic services to a local mosque.
“We would have helped anybody that came but I’m really happy we’re helping three Muslim families find not only a life here but the freedom to practice their faith.”
Before I put away my notebook and say my goodbyes, Mansour and Elsaf hurriedly insist I write down one more thing. Their gratitude to be in Canada.
“We want to show how appreciative and thankful we are to Jim [Short] and Diane [Schmidt] and Delta Safe Haven. They’ve been very helpful in making us feel welcome and simplifying things and making things easier for us.”
For more information about the fantastic work done by this community of volunteers visit deltasafehaven.org.