Community Builders

Military family sponsors Syrian family to Canada

Maj. (ret’d) Bruce Nelms and his wife Jan remember the day when they finally welcomed the Kaiyali family to Canadian soil as a day of excitement, gratitude and lots of hugs and kisses.

“It was an extraordinarily beautiful event,” remembered Jan.

A crowd of extended family, Syrian refugees, Syrian-Canadians and the sponsorship group that helped to bring the Kaiyali’s to Canada, gathered at the Victoria International Airport in mid-February, after months of waiting, to welcome the family of four that had fled from their home country of Syria.

However, before the airplane that was bringing Zaki and Muzna Kaiyali and their two children, ages 10 and six, could touch down in Victoria, months of work went into bringing the family to Canada.

Bruce, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for more than 34 years, and Jan, who is a retired RN having mainly worked in psychiatry, both decided in November 2015 to join a group of four other families that was looking to sponsor a refugee family.

“I had always been interested in other cultures,” said Jan, who met the sponsorship group through the Cowichan Intercultural Society (CIS).

The idea of sponsoring the Kaiyali family stemmed from Hanadi Ponsford, a Canadian-Syrian and family member to the Kaiyalis.

Even with Ponsford’s help in translating tedious documents between English and Arabic, the process was still painstaking and required a great deal of “bureaucratic hoopla” between the Lebanese and Canadian governments.

As the paperwork went up the ladder, the families prepared for the Kaiyalis. One of Jan’s contributions was collecting clothing for the family. Jan was touched by the response of both businesses and family – with many Cowichan Bay stores giving generously and an unexpected collection of clothing for the six-year-old boy provided by Jan’s stepdaughter as a Christmas gift to Jan.

“The spreading of generosity was like ‘being the change you want to see,’ and it went on to the next generation. It was the best and most meaningful Christmas I think I’ve ever had,” recalled Jan.

It’s been five months now since the Kaiyalis have been in British Columbia, and they are starting to get their bearings thanks to their sponsorship group. Zaki has a job, and a Canadian driver’s licence and the children have been enrolled in schools.

The sponsorship group is responsible for the family for one year which means they will assist the Kaiyalis in providing housing and basic needs, learning English and integrating into the society.

But one of the main tasks the Nelms and their sponsorship group have at hand is to help the family transition to independence.

“We work a lot with the family to help them slowly start to take on a little bit, especially as dad is working and making a small salary, to help them make that transition rather than facing it all of a sudden at the end of the year,” added Jan.

Sponsoring a Syrian refugee family is more than just helping them navigate their new life, it’s about bringing together Syrian and Canadian culture, and coming together.

One of the things the Nelms have learned in this cultural exchange is the importance of tea time.

“At tea time you’re expected to go to your neighbours and have tea with them. In Canada, we wait for somebody to invite us to come over. It’s a cultural difference that’s quite marked for the refugees coming in because they don’t know to invite you, and they just expect you to come over, and when you don’t show up they wonder whether they have done something wrong,” observed Bruce.

On the other hand, the Syrian families are learning about Canadian culture, including the excitement of an Easter egg hunt.

“The ten-year-old girl [Rama], who was actually the eldest of all the children there, she was so excited. She read every clue and all the kids were running from one spot to the next all excited about the prizes left for them. It was just really a neat thing to see even though her English wasn’t perfect it was good enough to read the clues, and you could see the gears turning in her mind as she looked at the clue and looked at the farm around her and went ‘oh it’s over there,” remembered Bruce.

Having gone through the entire process of sponsoring a refugee family, the retired military couple believe there is no reason to deter refugees from coming into Canada. It isn’t an either or between helping other Canadians and the refugees that come to Canada almost always give back to the communities, they integrate into.

“It doesn’t matter who you give out to, our own or theirs, it tends to generate more good will and more giving when you do it for one,” noted Jan.

Sponsoring a Syrian family also helps to build bridges.

“We have a way of doing things in Canada but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways that are just as good, they’re different, but just as good. They’re just the way different cultures do things. Getting educated on that and having our eyes opened to a different way to do things, that’s really valuable. It stretches our minds and stretches our hearts,” said Bruce.

The Nelms and the other families in their sponsorship group are now currently in the process of sponsoring a few more Syrian families. The first of the families is expected to arrive in the fall sometime.

Both Bruce and Jan encourage other Canadians to join in and sponsor Syrian families, “because when you give you get way more back than you ever thought. Giving really opens so many doors,” said Bruce.


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Mishall Rehman

Originally from Atlanta, GA, Mishall is a freelance journalist pursuing her passion for writing in her new homeland Canada. She currently lives in Trenton, ON with her husband.

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Canadian Military Family Magazine