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Private refugee sponsors: ‘This is where you make a difference’

Dalhousie faculty greet the refugee family they sponsored at the Halifax airport

4 min read
Family accepts gift bags.
caption Each child was presented with a gift bag.
Linea Volkering
Sponsors hand a gift bag to a refugee family at the Halifax airport
caption After a long flight, the Kallal-Altayeb family is greeted by their private sponsors with gift bags and flowers.
Linea Volkering

While the federal government continues toward its goal of bringing 25,000 refugees to Canada, private groups are helping refugees start a new life in Nova Scotia.

The Kallal-Altayeb family is living proof. They landed in Halifax Tuesday night and their passage west was sponsored in part by faculty members from Dalhousie University.

English professor Kathleen Cawsey proposed the idea and was soon joined by history professor Amal Ghazal. Ghazal says the group felt compelled to do something after watching the news stories of desperate individuals risking it all for a chance at a better life.

“It was the little boy on the shore in Turkey. Everyone wanted to do something and we asked if we could do something together,” said Ghazal.

Emails were shared and soon the group quickly grew beyond its founding faculty members.

“We were given a list of families and choosing one, of course, wasn’t easy for us. It’s a big difference to make in one family’s life,” said Ghazal.

In the end, one family’s unique circumstances stood out: A Palestinian father, a Syrian mother and four daughters between the ages of two and 11.

To boot, the mother is the only recognized Syrian citizen in the family. The father has not been granted citizenship rights in Syria, and the mother, as a woman in Syria married to a legal “alien”, cannot pass on citizenship to her daughters.

“We knew it was going to be challenging because the girls are not at a working age,” said Ghazal. “But at the same time, they’re four small girls, so this is where you make a difference. You get the girls here, they get a new life, they go to school, they get citizenship.”

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The Dalhousie group is part of a growing trend of private sponsors of refugees. Nabiha Atallah, a spokesperson for ISANS, an organization that acts as a liaison between private sponsor groups and government, says they’ve stopped accepting sponsorship applications.

Atallah says they are at full capacity with more than 100 ongoing sponsorships in the province.

The sponsorship for the Kallal-Altayeb family will last for one year. During this time, the sponsors are in charge of carrying out duties that the federal government would normally undertake to make sure the refugees are settled and finding their way.

Cawsey believes the person-to-person approach makes sense.

“I think they stand a better chance of not getting lost in the system this way,” she says.

The group has found an apartment for the family and members have split into committees each with their own task: finding clothes, sorting legal documents and organizing a carpool for school runs. They will also need to get used to living off a small budget until they can find work.

But Ghazal says it will take more than just the kindness of strangers to help get the family on their feet.

“They’ll need the support of the broader community, the Arab-speaking community with whom they can communicate and share experiences,” says Ghazal. “The main thing is for them to have a community.”

Tuesday marked three months since the application process began. At the airport, people waited with signs and flowers.

When the Kallal-Altayeb family arrived after their two-day journey, they smiled as they greeted the assembled crowd. After offering their thanks to each member of the group, they climbed into a cab and drove off toward their new life.

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About the author

Mikkel Frederiksen

Mikkel is finishing his Master of Journalism at the University of King's College. He's fond of watching films, and sometimes writes about them...

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