The Al Hadid family stands to receive a warm welcome at the open house at the Pyramid Centre Tuesday evening.
By Dan Rankin
Organizers at the Pyramid Centre kept setting up more and more chairs Tuesday evening as dozens of St. Marys and area families continued to pour in and fill them up, shaking hands with two families of happy new St. Marys residents as they entered.
It was those two families, the Al Hadids and the Kubreslis, that the gathering was all about on Tuesday, as listeners who were predominantly born and raised in and around St. Marys gathered to show support for them in the face of the considerable hardships they went through before beginning their lives here, and to offer further support as they make this country their new home.
St. Marys United Church Minister Rev. Doug Loucks greets the Kubresli family on his way into the community centre Tuesday evening.
St. Marys Presbyterian Church Minister and convenor of the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group Rev. Gwen Ament emceed the casual event that included refreshments served by local Girl Guides and some live musical performances.
Rev. Ament said that, while her name has often been present in stories documenting the deeds of the refugee sponsorship group, “it’s us as a community that has been doing this.”
She credited a few local people by name, including Tammy Algra and her family, under whose roof the Al Hadid family also currently resides, Stephen Habermehl, who has been invaluable for the families in arranging financial and other documents, Deb Pratt-Weersink, and Margaret Smart-Wheaton. But there have been many members of the community helping out, Rev. Ament said, driving the new St. Marys residents to ESL classes or simply “providing friendship and help integrating into the community.”
“With all of that, hope has been given where there once was none,” she said.
Kitchener musician and friend of Rev. Ament Dawud Wharnsby said that, living in Damascus, Syria in 2005 with his wife, even late at night, “there was never a sense of fear.”
“My wife would feel no fear walking home,” he said. “It’s hard for us to imagine now that we see what has been going on for the past 10 years.”
Speaking on behalf of her family, which includes her mother and father as well as their five adult children (four sons and a daughter), Dona Kubresli (the daughter), described how, when violence broke out in Syria, they left the country with nothing.
In Lebanon, they enlisted as refugees with the UN, and then bounced back and forth between their home country and Turkey, seeking help and trying to find work. “My mom had a big surgery,” she said. “My youngest brother also. We didn’t have any health insurance, so it was really hard and difficult, the life there.”
They arrived in Sherbrooke, Quebec in early January, but found life difficult there as, though they had some English, they knew no French. By chance, they were able to reconnect with some old friends who lived in Mitchell. With the help of the local refugee sponsorship group, they relocated to St. Marys about three weeks ago. Two of Dona’s brothers already have found jobs at a local factory, and actually had shifts that meant they were unable to attend Tuesday.
“Thanks to everyone, the people in St. Marys and the people in Mitchell, who helped us to have a better life here in Ontario,” Kubresli said.
Maha Al Hadid also thanked the special people who had helped bring her here with her six other family members, including her young niece and nephew, their parents, her sister and her mother, Warda.
Two of Warda’s other children are still in Lebanon, registered with the United Nations, Rev. Ament said. Another son, who she had lost contact with for roughly four years has also recently been in touch with them since they’ve been here in St. Marys. “Another daughter we’re still unsure about,” Rev. Ament said.
St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee, left, leads a round of applause for two of St. Marys newest families, the Al Hadids and the Kubreslis, who can be seen in the front row of seats.
“I think it speaks volumes the amount of people that are here,” St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee said. “This shows the commitment of our community, what a great place it is to live, and how proud I am to be a citizen of the Town of St. Marys.”
Looking out on the crowd assembled Tuesday, Rev. Ament said it was also proof of an “ongoing wish for [the new families] to have hope, and for them to know they are loved and we care about them and say ‘welcome’.”