The Power of Community: Welcoming Refugees
December 19, 2020
We live in a small town in Ontario in the outskirts of the GTA. We are a community of 8 – 10,000.
In 2016, when the Prime Minister called on all Canadians to help with welcoming 30,000 Syrian refugees, our community swung into action, led by the churches, to begin raising funds and get ready. My wife and I ran a Bridges program which was attended by about 40 people. The Bridges Course is to help Christians learn how to understand what Muslims believe and how to relate to them.
Our small community had planned to welcome one family. As it turned out funding came in for four families. The welcoming committee split up into teams of about 20 -25 people for each family. The teams were responsible for every aspect of an incoming families well being including: health, accommodation, schooling, clothing, furniture and jobs.
The power of a community, focused on a goal, is a remarkable thing. The town was ready as the families began to arrive a few months later. We were not involved on any of the teams in a formal way, but we made it our role to meet the families one by one and then just fill gaps as they arose.
A Holiday Meal & Learning to Ride the Bus
One of the families, who were Arabic, arrived just before Christmas. We invited them over for a halal meal over Christmas. With very low language skills, all around, we managed a lovely evening of games. The father, Said*, thanked me some time later for having a party that did not include alcohol. Clearly it had been a concern for them.
The other families arrived in short order. One Arabic and two Kurdish.
The welcoming teams were all hard at work. Backpacks needed for school. Check. Laptops needed for some of the kids schooling. Done. And so on. Getting the adults learning English was a top priority. Somehow, they had to find their way to Oshawa, a thirty-minute drive, where a full time ESL school was operating.
I was given the job of teaching Said how to use the bus system. I travelled with him a few times to get him comfortable and then he was up and running. It just so “happened” that our good friend, a Muslim-born Christian, teaches at that ESL school. She “happened” to be teaching Said, and down the road she invited him and his family to her church in Oshawa.
In the first year, we found the families were very open to send their kids to various church programs being offered around the town. Four of the boys attended the VBS at our church. When the invitation came for those who wanted to “move closer to Jesus” their hands were the first in the air. Clearly their understanding of what they were doing was low, but God sees the heart. Church Soccer programs were signed up for and so on. Three of the teenage girls started to attend the youth program at our church and were enthusiastic participants. As time has gone on the kids have all pulled back from church activities, but there is no ill will. Life has just moved them on, but they do now have some insight which they never had before.
After the First Year
As the families first year drew to a close in early 2017, the formal work of the welcoming teams began to close down. However, each family, now had a web of relationships around them which were a deep resource for them to draw on. Some of the kids were struggling at school. A former elementary school principal began to give them private tutoring, which continues to this day and the kids are now doing well at school.
Up until the end of the formal welcoming program the work was being done by the whole community. Because of this, there was no specific Christian presence or goal. The focus was to get the families settled in and established.
In early 2017, we invited the Christian members of the welcoming teams to join us in praying for the families and to try and figure out how to move forward from there. We had a good group meeting monthly from a variety of churches.
As the year went on, we realised that the regular, sometimes daily, contact we had become used to with the families, was dissipating. We needed a way to maintain contact.
In the Fall we approached the pastor at our church, and together we decided to run a monthly gathering for all of the families. Later we decided to meet bimonthly as monthly became too much for all of us.
The objective would be to have fun, eat some good food and give the guests something to think about spiritually by way of a brief testimony or something to stretch their thinking a bit. We decided to call this program Oasis.
Oasis we hoped would be a place of relaxation, refreshment and opportunity for reflection.
By now, we had met various other families who had arrived in nearby towns, around us. They were all included in Oasis.
We would typically meet on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of our church. In all we were connecting with about 12 -15 families. There were lots of kids. We realised quickly that if wanted to address the adults in any practical way, we needed a separate kid’s program. The person who runs the kids’ program at our church, bravely volunteered to head up a team to do this.
Our programs now included about forty-five minutes with the adults on their own. This gave us time to do a brief low-key presentation followed by breaking out into small groups where a team member would lead a group discussion on the presentation, ask how folks were doing and then end in prayer for the various needs.
This was a type of Alpha small group discussion. Conversations were always good.
COVID & Oasis
Covid has put paid to our bimonthly meetings but we are now focusing more on keeping contact online, with phone calls and sometimes at front doors. Some of the ladies on our team are walking with the Syrian ladies and so on. This just seems to be the way the Lord is leading at the moment. We are also now praying weekly. Probably the most important thing we can do at present.
One of the families in one of the other towns, recently had a house fire which forced them to move out of home. They are now living in the basement of one of the other Oasis families until the house is ready to be re-occupied in a month or so, when the damage is repaired. The family lost all of their furniture and clothing due to smoke damage. The Oasis team very quickly came up with some cash and food to tide them over for a while. Once the house is ready, we will put the word out for offers of furniture and household goods from the community.
Once again, the power of a community focused on a goal is a powerful thing.
Waiting, Watching & Trusting
We have not seen any of the members of Oasis come to the Lord yet, but we are continuing on, living life transparently for the Lord in front of them.
We know the Lord has brought them to us, so that we can love them towards Jesus and the Kingdom. We also know that only the Lord can break the chains that bind our Muslim friends’ hearts and minds.
We are waiting, watching and trusting that God will bring to completion that which He has begun.