WINCHESTER — Fleeing the bloodshed and turmoil of Syria’s civil war, a young family has finally found peace and open arms in North Dundas Township — and even an open door to the mayor’s house, where they now reside.
Shortly after Adel Al Ghorani and Dania Al Muazzen arrived here with their three children on Feb. 22, Eric Duncan gave them the keys to his Winchester home, voluntarily displacing himself into his mother’s basement in the meantime.
The 30-year-old mayor — already a veteran elected politician of 12 years — joked about moving back with “mum” during the “Welcome to Canada” community potluck event at the Joel Steele Community Centre on Sunday.
“I get my laundry done, I get three meals a day,” quipped Duncan, a member of the Dundas Coalition for Refugee Support that has worked for over two years to sponsor and land a Syrian refugee family. “They can live in my house as long as they possibly want,” the mayor added to laughing applause from the audience of 100 or more people.
The mayor’s acknowledged personal contribution is in line with multiple instances of the community stepping up to assist the privately sponsored family, who had been living under duress in Egypt since 2011.
An individual came forward with a car for the family, which Andrew Whitton’s automotive technology class fixed up at North Dundas District High School. Parts were supplied free by local retailers. Teachers at North Dundas District High School shelled out to pay for soccer fees so that 15-year-old Hamza Al Ghorani could join the team. Fellow students helped supply him with soccer cleats and other equipment. His coach drives him home after practice and games.
“People in the school or the community have just opened up and have been absolutely wonderful,” Duncan reported, adding the couple’s 7-year-old twin daughters, Masa and Liain Al Ghorani, “have been doing very well” in Grade 1 at Winchester Public School.
The girls scurried around with friends during the potluck and were already speaking pretty good English as they played and chased red balloons.
Eric Pietersma, another Coalition member, said the family’s arrival triggered a “phenomenal response” from the community.
As examples, he noted how a local doctor took them on as patients, while Winchester dentist Dr. Carlin contributed their necessary dental work. “When there is something to be done, people are there to do it,” Pietersma said.
Five individuals or couples have personally signed on as guarantors to cover the family’s living expenses for the next year, under the federal private sponsorship program, setting themselves a budget of about $33,000. “Some of that is covered by government support, like the HST and Child care benefits,” Pietersma conceded.
However, most of the bill is the responsibility those five sponsors, and the potluck event served as a fundraiser to help offset their costs. “We’re targeting the cost of their plane tickets right now,” he said.
Coalition member Moria Law said the occasion had her thinking about “how amazing the people in Winchester are.” She recounted how Dania recently marvelled how everyone smiles and greets her as she goes about town — especially because she’s recognized. “She was just amazed by that.”
Added Law, “It really is nice. There really hasn’t been any unpleasantness to them.”
She and husband JP Leduc are among the five individuals privately backstopping the family’s finances.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to tell me where I do my charitable giving,” Law said of those who occasionally express “misinformed” ideas about refugee support on social media.
She said the family fled their home on the outskirts of Damascus after a bomb fell from the sky and obliterated a house a few doors down from their place. They wound up in Cairo where they were “not welcome,” she said, living in a dingy apartment and legally not permitted to work.
Duncan described them as a “perfect example of who refugees are.
“They are grateful, they are wonderful, they’re kind, and they’re caring. And they want to give back to our community.” He added they’ve expressed interest in volunteering with local youth and the food bank. Adel has already helped out as a stagehand on the latest Dundas County Players’ production at Winchester’s Old Town Hall.
The gathering also coincided with Dania’s 36th birthday. Not yet conversant in English, she wiped away a tear as the crowd spontaneously broke into Happy Birthday.
See the video of the evening, below.
This article was edited to reflect the correct day of the event.
Update, below: Duncan’s Aug. 17 Facebook post announcing he was back in his Winchester home after loaning it to the newcomers for the last five-plus months. Al Ghorani and Al Muazzen recently rented their own place in the village.
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