As the arrival of the DJC-sponsored Syrian family approaches, volunteers from the community came together on Sunday, May 15, to learn about Syrian culture, understand how trauma may impact the family’s experience, and consider how the experience of the team currently supporting a government-assisted refugee family may inform our planning and support for the family still to come.

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Mahmoud Allouch, Syria Project Coordinator at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, presented on Syrian culture and society.  He shared numerous picturesque slides taken before the conflict evidencing Syria’s beauty, varied architecture, rich history, and mouthwatering food.

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Syrians emphasize family and friends, sharing food, traditional gender roles, and political discretion.  Mental health issues carry a stigma.  Many feel they bring shame on the family so families are often not comfortable speaking openly about these issues.  Syrians have a flexible sense of time.  Although Syria’s population is 90% Arab and 90% Muslim, those who have fled are not a homogeneous group.  They are rural and urban and from different social classes.  Interestingly, a majority of those who have landed in Toronto are of Armenian descent.  The DJC-sponsored family is Kurdish.  Overall, Mahmoud recommended that we take the lead from the family when providing settlement support.

Amy Soberano, Child and Youth Trauma and Settlement Counsellor with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), reminded us that many refugees experience trauma at many stages of their journey to Canada: in their home countries, through their migration, and even after they arrive here as a result of isolation from family and friends, inability to communicate, and cultural dislocation.

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Some will require the expert trauma counselling available at the CCVT, but trauma can also be mitigated by day-to-day support and activities facilitated by volunteers.  Rather than attempting to draw out the family’s trauma history, Amy recommended a focus on empowerment, emphasizing the strength and resilience the family demonstrates in meeting the challenges they have faced.  It is also important to recognize the power imbalance that exists between newcomers and those who support them and of checking our language and attitudes to avoid any paternalism or condescension.

Sharron Kusiar, Chair of the Social Justice Committee, and fellow members of the team supporting a government-assisted refugee family, shared their experiences over the past several weeks.  Challenges have included communication across the language barrier, waitlists for ESL classes, finding opportunities for the family to socialize with others, and locating inexpensive dental care.  The experience has been both rewarding and time-consuming.

Some tips from the front lines:

  • Have a detailed assignment list for team members.  Be flexible based on family’s own priorities.
  • Lean on settlement agencies to the extent possible.  They are the experts.
  • Use interpreters.  There are many available, and they will be key to truly understanding the family’s preferences.  Be aware that interpreters may have their own agenda and spin.
  • Help the family to establish a budget early on.  This is the area where it has been toughest to ensure the team is supporting rather than controlling the family’s priorities.
  • Have fun!  The happiest moments have come when the newcomer family has been able to bring something of themselves to the volunteers:  a giant bowl of creamy homemade yogurt, endless cups of strong coffee, and an afternoon spent vigorously cultivating a vegetable garden.

Ultimately, we were reminded of the old adage that if you give a person a fish, they will eat for a day, and if you teach them to fish, they will eat for a lifetime.  Success will be found in the family finding its own strength and independence.

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