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Kevork Jamgochian, the first Syrian refugee greeted by Justin Trudeau, with his daughter.
Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images

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A New Life in Strangers’ Clothes for Syrian Refugees in Canada

What do you buy to help someone you’ve never met start over in a new country?

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Like many Canadians, Debbie Rix was spurred to take action when she saw the now-iconic picture of the dead Syrian boy on the beach. Alan Kurdi — beloved 3-year-old son, brother, and nephew — was photographed facedown in the sand, a casualty of Syria’s hyperviolent civil war, and Rix couldn’t look away. “My parents are immigrants and when I was growing up, the house was always full of strangers who needed a little help,” says Rix, who runs an upscale general store in downtown Toronto. “I just felt like there must be something I could do.”

Rix joined a private sponsorship group of about 50 people — organized largely through friends and acquaintances over Facebook — and set about raising funds and collecting household goods to support the arrival of a Syrian family who would have to start their lives all over again.

Fatima Almatar looks through the clothing racks at the Toronto Plaza Hotel in North York.
Photo: Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Rix and her group were matched with a Syrian family in October 2015. In anticipation of their arrival, Rix and her sponsorship group rented and furnished a house on the outskirts of Toronto, procuring beds, sheets, tables, chairs, couches, curtains, rugs, and clothing mostly through donations. They went shopping at a Middle Eastern food market, stocking up on items they hoped would be familiar: pitas, olives, hummus, chickpeas, labneh (strained yogurt), and rice. They looked for packaging with Arabic writing. The group was also given welcome packages by a local Muslim association, which contained a Quran, a scarf, and a few other items.

Rix was hopeful that these things they were collecting would provide a decent start, but there was a lot of guesswork involved. The Canadians didn’t know much about the Syrians, just that there would be eight people in total — a brother and sister who each had their own families, plus their mother. They had owned a restaurant in Bosra, in southern Syria, and had escaped to an apartment in Amman. But they were otherwise strangers to Rix and her group. Only one family member — the adult brother — spoke English, and conversations were largely conducted over email. After the Syrians were approved to travel to Canada in August 2016, Rix met the entire family over FaceTime. “We just smiled at each other, waving and all of us saying hello,” says Rix.

Rix is just one of many Canadians who have sponsored thousands of Syrian refugees through private groups over the past two years. And as these sponsorship groups prepare for the arrival of refugees (typically a family with several children or an extended family), they are charged with purchasing all of the things required to start a new life in a completely foreign place — not only what the Syrians might need, but what might make them feel more at home. Throughout it all, these groups balance help with integration with support for continuity of traditions.

In this context, the typically mundane activities of shopping for mattresses and clothing, sourcing furniture and kitchen supplies, take on new and more intimate meaning. When Rebecca Lui, a web producer in Toronto, and her sponsorship group solicited donations of furniture and housewares, many included heartfelt handwritten notes of welcome and encouragement for the new family. Lui says that she and her fellow sponsors couldn’t help but project their hopes onto the stuff they were packing and unpacking while waiting for a Syrian family to arrive. “We would imagine how they would use them and hope this would be something that would help ease their way into a new beginning,” she says.

Homesickness for the Syrians who have been uprooted, their whole lives forced into a couple of suitcases, can be unbearable. Maha Alio arrived to Toronto with her mother six months ago after living for a year with temporary refugee status in Turkey. “Every day, for one moment, I think that I want to go back to Syria even if it’s not safe,” she says. “I know it’s crazy but I miss my home, my stuff, my friends, everything. I just want to sit in my chair at my desk, to touch the things that were in my room for 20 years.” Alio spent 35 hours in transit between Syria and Turkey, driving through Lebanon to reach Gaziantep. “Now I’m thinking about what things I have from Syria and it’s really nothing,” she says. “I have to rebuild everything here.”

Adina Goldman, who works for Canada’s public broadcaster, was keen to provide personal touches. Her sponsorship group received a donation from a quilting group who offered quilts to cover each of the Syrian family’s five beds. “It was a nice personal memento to give them,” says Goldman. Her sponsorship group sought out external donations but also scoured their homes for furniture, clothes, and housewares they could part with. “It felt so good to know we were transferring objects to them, building a landing pad for them,” she says. “It was stuff we had lived with and you feel like you’re weaving them into that continuum.”

But picking out clothes for strangers, says Goldman, was a strange experience. One local entrepreneur set up a warehouse to field donations specifically for the arriving Syrians, and sponsorship groups were often shopping blind — unsure of the exact size of each family member and certainly disconnected from personal taste. “It was an intimate choice to make,” says Goldman. In addition, the secondhand clothing market — and certainly the prestige we attach to “vintage” items — is less entrenched in Syria. While families were certainly not expecting anything luxurious, some found it odd to be given clothing that had once been worn by someone else.

Anti-Muslim Ban protestors in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

Some private sponsors report mild anxiety in helping to set up this new life for complete strangers. They wonder what, if anything, can be purchased or collected that might in some small way cushion the landing for a family that has been through trauma. What might communicate welcome and the aspirations for a happier, healthier life in a new place so far away from a home that changed so suddenly and dramatically and now barely exists at all?

“You have a sense of what this family has gone through and you want to provide them with all the comforts of home,” says Pay Chen, a radio host and writer. “You feel like you're choosing items for your own family and hope that you've chosen well.” Her sponsorship group of approximately 30 people collected donations and also made a list of things they wanted to buy new, like mattresses and pillows, school supplies and backpacks for the kids. “We wanted them to feel like these belonged only to them,” says Chen.

Before their Syrian family of six arrived from Lebanon, Chen and her fellow sponsors didn’t know anyone’s clothing or shoe sizes. They also consulted other sponsorship groups and realized that there were a number of items they hadn’t considered, like prayer mats and meat grinders. They ordered a Turkish coffee pot and a hand juicer for lemons. “Our giant North American coffee mugs are not the type of coffee mugs they use,” says Chen. “We learned along the way which culturally specific items would be more helpful.”

These cultural differences emerge in a million small, benign, and unexpected ways. Over time, some Syrian families trade their donated couches and armchairs for Arabic-style cushions on a carpeted floor. One family built a small shower seat out of found bricks so the elderly matriarch could sit in the tub and rinse herself off with buckets of warm water; a sponsor noticed and headed over to Home Depot to buy some plastic stools. Another new Syrian arrival found a much-missed spice from home unavailable in the grocery store but growing wild at her suburban Toronto bus stop.

Like most refugees, the Syrians arriving in Canada come with very little literal baggage. They leave behind wedding presents and photo albums, family heirlooms and art collections. A threat to physical safety, the need to flee from civil conflict, might seem like it renders material objects irrelevant. But we carry a powerful attachment to tangible things. The things we collect keep us rooted in the earth; our homes, our beds, our bookshelves and frying pans, the sneakers with the shoelaces that always come undone, and the letters collected in a box tell the story of who we are and where we have been.

When the revolution started, Rihab Allaf was working in an interior-design firm in Damascus and helping people pick out pretty things for their apartments. As the war accelerated, she left for Lebanon for a week before her family — most of whom had already left Syria — persuaded her not to go back. Allaf, 47, made her way to Egypt for what she thought would be a month. She was there for four years, finally reaching Toronto through private refugee sponsorship in August 2016. The only things Allaf brought from Syria to start her life over again are the items she thought she might need for a one-week trip to Lebanon — clothing that has taken on more significance as her life in Syria grows increasingly distant. “When I wear these things, they remind me [of] when I was in Syria, where I had a very good life before the war,” says Allaf. She misses the small chair in her garden, where she would sit and drink coffee under a jasmine tree. Both of her parents passed away since the war began, and she yearns for her father’s old radio.

Abdullah Al Danh, 6, stirs sap in a large pot — a very Canadian experience — as Syrian refugee kids from Thornwood Public School got tour at Jack Smythe Field Centre.
Photo: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Amer Faham, who arrived to Toronto six months ago with his wife and now year-old son, also thinks about the things he left behind. After fleeing Syria for Iraq, Faham carried onto Turkey, where he stayed for two years and met his wife. When the phone call from UNHCR finally came, Faham was given 10 days notice of his family’s scheduled journey to Canada. They had the same baggage allotment as standard international flights. “It’s very limited,” says Faham. “We brought some clothes, some fridge magnets that reminded us of our trips, and our laptops. It’s your whole life and all of your memories in a few bags.”

In 2012, suspecting he might soon have to leave Syria, Faham gave his mother a notebook and asked her to write down all of her recipes. His bags were overstuffed for the trip to Toronto, and he needed extra space for the baby’s things, so he left it with friends in Turkey and still hopes to be reunited. “Now I feel like it was a big mistake to leave it behind,” he says. “I can only cook the really simple things from memory. These trivial things are really important.”

The story of these tangible goods — new, donated, smuggled out, left behind — includes a learning curve for sponsors and newly arrived Syrians, who are both adapting to a new place and trying to maintain personal and cultural traditions. It took several months before Rix heard from her sponsored family that they weren’t really crazy about the unfamiliar couches and armchairs in their living room. Rix helped them set up an Arabic-style space with carpeting and cushions lining the walls. “It was something I hadn’t even thought about,” says Rix, “but now they have a room where they feel comfortable having friends over.”

Deriving small comforts from material things can feel, at times, like a lifeline. Faham gets some comfort from two handmade copper cups from Aleppo and some mosaics of Damascus. In a small apartment with donated furniture in an unfamiliar city and new country, these are the things that stand out. “You see them and you feel, somehow, like it’s your place,” says Faham. “[But] once I’m settled, I would like to have a place that I can see more of myself in.”

To donate to or learn more about the Canadian Red Cross, click here. To donate to or learn more about Ryerson University’s Syrian Lifeline Challenge, click here.

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