Since 2015, ICA has worked closely with individuals and community groups to bring eligible refugees to Canada. To date, ICA has worked with nearly 700 community members through sponsorship groups to welcome more than 260 refugees. The energy and effort that goes into ensuring a warm welcome and a safe place to land for resettled refugees makes the moment when sponsors and sponsored finally meet all the more special.
For Sabine Lehr, ICA’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Manager, airport arrivals involve great amounts of fanfare. New arrivals are often welcomed with open arms by a host of community sponsors and relatives. However, the one thing all arrivals have in common is their arrival date is often uncertain until the last minute.
Hani Shehab, for example, arrived in Victoria to an empty airport in the middle of the night.
“I’ll never forget that call,” remembers Sabine. It was New Year’s Eve 2015, and just as she was turning in for the evening, the phone rang. A young Syrian refugee arrived by himself, unable to speak English, and nobody was informed of his arrival. It was midnight, and the Canadian Border Services Agency representatives were waiting with Hani for someone to pick him up so they could close the airport for the night. Since his sponsors weren’t informed of his arrival either, Sabine and her husband rushed to the airport to welcome him. .
“I was terrified, I didn’t know who was going to come get me. I hadn’t even heard of a sponsor before, so I didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Hani, now 26. “I almost asked them to send me back home.”
Eventually Sabine and her husband arrived in the dark to a lone passenger outside the arrival gate. She remembers trying to introduce herself and explain the situation to Hani, but the whole ordeal took a leap of faith because neither spoke the other’s language. “I just wanted him to be comfortable, I didn’t want him to be afraid,” Sabine remembers.
“I remember her trying to explain on the way who she was and how she could help me. If I didn’t have the translate app on my phone, I wouldn’t have been able to trust understand anyone,” Hani recalls.
After arriving at the hotel around 3am, Sabine and Hani, dodging the New Years’ Eve chaos, found some food Hani could eat. As if by divine miracle, in the back of the kitchen, Sabine recognized a Syrian community member she met earlier that week. She enthusiastically flagged him down and he explained the situation in Arabic to Hani. This put everyone at ease!
“It turns out they were from the same city in Syria! It was such a warm reunion. Everyone was crying,” Sabine recalls. The surprise helper explained to Hani that despite the mix up, he was safe and everything would get sorted in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
“After I saw that guy, I felt so much relief,” Hani remembers. The next day, Hani finally received the warm welcome everyone was hoping for from his sponsors. Since then, Hani and his sponsorship group have also been able to bring his parents and brother to Victoria.
Despite his own turbulent welcome, Hani knew his family would feel the love as they arrived in their new home. “I had all my friends and my sponsors waiting for them. It was such an amazing experience to welcome my family and reunite after a long time. I’m just so happy,” he says.
“The Private Sponsorship of Refugees program depends on relationships,” Sabine asserts. “It’s not about how well the actual plan goes, but how can we make the best out of the situation we are presented with.”
If you would like to learn more about how you can become a sponsor, please contact Sabine at email@example.com.