Synagogue votes to sponsor Syrian refugee family

Naomi Alboim

TORONTO — The board of Congregation Darchei Noam has voted unanimously to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to come to Canada, making it the first Toronto synagogue to undertake a sponsorship.

“As Jews, we cannot help but be sensitive to a refugee issue,” Suzanne Klein, co-chairman, along with her husband Martin, of the Reconstructionist synagogue’s Syrian refugee sponsorship committee, said in an interview after the July 28 board meeting.

“We have identified a family of Kurdish Syrians in a horrific, precarious situation in Lebanon,” Klein said.

The family of five is living in a barn, and the children, who cannot go to school, are working alongside their parents in a farmer’s field.

The family, who are not being identified for confidentiality reasons, have relatives in Toronto and were selected by Lifeline Syria, a newly created group that is matching refugees, sponsors and non-governmental agencies.

The federal government has said it will resettle 10,000 Syrians over the next three years in Canada and is looking for private sponsors, such as churches, synagogues and individuals, to account for a significant portion of the sponsors.

An estimated four million Syrian refugees are living outside the country in what the United Nations has called the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Naomi Alboim, who sits on the executive of Lifeline Syria and is a member of Darchei Noam, said it’s fitting the synagogue has agreed to sponsor a Syrian family.

 “The Jewish community played a remarkable role in [resettling] the Vietnamese boat people,” she said referring to the 1979 efforts that saw 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos arrive in Canada. Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El accounted for the most sponsorship applications of any locally based group in Canada at the time, she said.

Alboim, who is chair of the Policy Forum at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies, brought the idea of sponsoring a Syrian family to the attention of Darchei Noam and has served as a consultant in the convoluted process of bringing a family over.

In order to begin the sponsorship process, Darchei Noam first had to raise $30,000, the equivalent of what a family of five would receive from welfare in Toronto. The money is expected to cover the family’s living costs during their first year here.

“We will try to find a reasonable apartment and furnish it with donations from our members,” Klein said.

Raising the money was not difficult, she said.  “The people I contacted said to me, ‘This is the my first pledge. Come back to me if you need more.’”

In the coming days, the synagogue will sign an agreement with Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), which will be the liaison with the federal government and will be responsible for settlement services such as English instruction.

Synagogue members will be responsible for helping the family adjust to life in Canada, whether it’s driving them to appointments, helping them find Arabic-speaking doctors and dentists, or handing down snowsuits for the children’s first winter here, Klein said.

“We are there to be the people who are needed when the social worker isn’t around,” Klein said.

While there will be a “language barrier that is pretty profound,” Klein said Darchei Noam already has a twinning relationship with a mosque, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto. The two congregations have shared meals and their clergy have taught together in the past, and the mosque’s members may serve as translators.

The next step for Darchei Noam is to begin preparing the extensive application required by the federal government. The family is also subject to Canadian security and health checks before they can be sponsored.

If for some reason this particular family is inadmissible, the synagogue will sponsor another family, Klein said.

In the best-case scenario, the family would arrive in Toronto in six months.

It is also possible that other synagogues may sponsor Syrian refugees.

 The Toronto Board of Rabbis has “given its hechsher,” to Darchei Noam, Alboim said. Other congregations have had preliminary conversations with Alboim and other synagogue members about sponsorship.

 In the meantime, Darchei Noam is documenting everything it is doing, to serve as a guide for other groups.

“Many of us are eager to make contact with the family, whichever family it is, and welcome them to Canada,” Klein said.

“We hope it will happen soon and we hope that we will not be alone.”