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Refugee Shabbat D'Var Torah

09/03/2021 07:16:06 AM


Naomi Alboim


Shabbat Shalom

I have been asked to speak today as a part of our congregation’s participation in a world- wide HIAS/JIAS effort to raise the awareness, and hopefully encourage action in the Jewish community, about refugees around the globe.

I will talk about the current refugee situation, the role that Jews and Jewish organizations have played in past refugee situations, including our own shul’s involvement with the Syrian refugee family we sponsored, and a request to you for continued involvement in refugee support for other refugees in need.

Unfortunately the number of displaced people in the world continues to grow. According to data provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019, an increase of 10 million over 2018.

Displaced people in 2019 included the close to 46 million who fled to areas within their own countries, the 26 million we call refugees who fled outside their countries, as well as those over 4 million people awaiting the outcomes of their asylum requests, and almost 4 million Venezuelans displaced abroad .

Let me give you some stats:

  • A full 1% of the world’s population is displaced
  • 80% of the world’s displaced people are in countries affected by acute food insecurity and malnutrition
  • 73% are hosted in neighbouring countries, like Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, and Uganda, many of which are facing their own internal difficulties
  • 68% came from just 5 countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar

The UNHCR attempts to find durable solutions for refugees:

  • First, voluntary repatriation to their home countries when circumstances permit
  • Second, local integration in neighbouring countries
  • And third, resettlement to third countries
  • Repatriation is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s harder to return home now than it was in the 1990s, with repatriation falling from an average of 1.5 million per year to roughly 385,000 per year over the last 10 years. 
  • Local integration in neighbouring countries is becoming harder with fewer countries able or willing to absorb large numbers of refugees because of their own internal economic, social and political issues.
  • And far fewer countries are willing to permanently resettle refugees from abroad. Of the 26 million refugees in 2019, only 107,800 of them were resettled to 26 different countries (.4%)!!!
  • Canada resettled more than 30,000 refugees in 2019, more than any of the other 26 countries volunteering to do so, 28% of the world’s resettled refugees, according to a new United Nations report, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

Canada cannot solve the problem on our own, but we can be part of the global solution both in terms of humanitarian aid abroad and in terms of resettlement. Canada can contribute to international sustainable initiatives in source and host countries: to prevent displacement, make voluntary repatriation possible and support local integration in neighbouring host countries.

In addition, resettlement and asylum processes in Canada are a small but very important part of the solution.

As Jews, we understand refugee situations and know what happens when the world ignores crises. We also know what Canadians can do when the political will is there, and what happens when it is not.


In addition to helping Jewish refugees from around the globe come to Canada, Jewish organizations and individuals were significantly involved in the sponsorship of refugees from Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1979-1981 period, and I am proud to say that Darchei Noam was the first synagogue in Canada to sponsor a Syrian refugee family in 2016 . It came naturally to a congregation that has had a long history in social justice advocacy and action, and with inter-faith activities.


Other synagogues and other Jewish groups, and groups of Jews, also came forward to sponsor Syrian refugees.

It was a very grass roots movement in the Jewish community.


We responded to this crisis as Jews for many reasons:

  • It was the right thing to do,
  • It was the humanitarian thing to do given the crisis and millions of people in need.
  • It was an opportunity to put our values into practice: welcoming the stranger, and tikkun olam
  • And Children of refugees, like me, saw this as an opportunity to  pay it forward in return for the safety and security Canada gave to our families.


Our Darchei Noam sponsorship committee initially decided to sponsor a family of 5 under the JIAS umbrella agreement: Mohamad, Valantina, and their three sons: Mahmoud, Khaled and Youssef, who had been languishing in Lebanon. Valantina’s sister, Sophia, lived in Toronto with her husband and daughter. We were able to raise the funds required for the sponsorship in a matter of weeks, received enough donated goods to furnish a two bedroom apartment, and had more volunteers to help with the settlement process than we could ever have imagined.


The family arrived on February 4, 2016. It was an incredibly emotional reunion not just for the two sisters who had not seen each other in 5 years, and had never met each other’s youngest children, but it was for us too. To finally see the sisters together in safety in Canada was overwhelming. Amid the tears and hugs, there was pure joy in all our hearts.


In the early days, we were delighted to spend time with the family, doing all the stuff that needs to be done, like taking them shopping for clothes and shoes, registering the kids in school, setting up dentist and doctor’s appointments, taking them to register for OHIP, showing them how to use the TTC, opening a bank account, but it was the smiles on the three boys faces, the amazement of the youngest ,born in Lebanon, who had never had a toy, when he received his first little car, the hugs spontaneously given at the door every time we arrive or leave their apartment, the speed with which the children learned English, the obvious relief felt by the parents that they are safe and welcomed here, that makes our hearts sing.

What a blessing for all of us!


It’s hard to believe that more than five years have gone by since their arrival.


The family has done amazingly well and has accomplished so much in this short period.


Mohamad, started working soon after his arrival and has been working ever since, even through the pandemic. His English gets better every day.


Valentina worked part time at a hair salon (her previous occupation in Syria) until she gave birth to her first Canadian-born beautiful little girl Katarina.


Mahmoud and Khaled are both in high school now and are doing well, although online learning has been a challenge.


All three boys took regular swimming classes until COVID, and after having attended day camps during school breaks, the two older boys have gone to sleep away camp for two summers at Camp Manitou, thanks to the amazing generosity of the Camp owner. Mahmoud has been offered a job as a CIT for this coming summer and Yousef will join his big brothers there for the first time.


Youssef is attending second grade at the local public school. He speaks English like a Canadian born child.


The family is eager to take advantage of every opportunity to experience Canadian life: shul members took them to their first hockey game: we’ve introduced them to picnicking and swimming at Toronto Islands; apple picking in the fall; to their local library; skating at Harbourfront and at their local arena; sledding in ravines; and to see plays at Young People’s Theatre.


About a year after their own arrival, the family was blessed with the arrival of Faiza, (Valantina’s mother, from Turkey)  Valantina’s older sister, Horia, Horia’s adult sons and then a little later by Horia’s daughter Nazila, and her husband Mahsoud. In January 2019, Naz and Mahsoud had their first child, a daughter, the first Canadian born member of this family.


So now we have three sisters who have been reunited with their mother, and four generations of strong, resilient new Canadians in this growing clan!


This is a family that is gracious, welcoming, kind, generous, loving, joyful, ambitious, independent, and highly motivated to integrate and build a Canadian life for themselves.


Valantina and Mohamad are saving whatever money they can every month and putting it away for their children’s college education and Mahmoud is already thinking of the grades he will need, to get into a good university to follow his dreams.


We have all been blessed to meet and get to know this family and to be invited to be part of their lives. But none of this could have been accomplished without the incredible support of our community…. It really does take a village!


Our Rabbi, the Board, and the Refugee Sponsorship Committee have been unwavering in their support


90 families donated funds.


50 households donated household furnishings


5 volunteer drivers  took the family to a myriad of dental appointments


Our member, Heather Osolen, who is a real estate agent offered her expertise, time and negotiation skills to find the perfect housing in the perfect location at an amazing price


Our member, Alan Meisner, organized all the donated furniture and furnishings including bikes, sewing machines, computers, and was our resident expert on city recreation programs


Our member, Phyllis Greenberg helped the family to register for OHIP, get their SINs, and open a bank account.


Our member Debbie Michnick, a former school principal, continues to work tirelessly to get the kids into the best school programs, liaise with their teachers, organize  tutoring, and find amazing camp experiences for the boys. Howell Gottlieb has now also stepped in to assist.


Our member Len Schwartz went above and beyond anyone’s expectations to provide and obtain free dental care for the whole family which was sorely needed


Our member, Naomi Fromm who is a retired  employment counsellor extraordinaire, found jobs for both Valantina and Mohamad, and continued to liaise with their employers and provide job coaching.


Our fabulous team of volunteer tutors, including Naomi Loeb, Gilda Freedman, Gila Cupchik, and Elaine McKee  led by Kathy Sykora, met with the boys and their parents regularly and helped them all with their language and academic skills. Rick Robbins has now stepped in to help too.


And of course our coordinating committee: Suzanne Klein, Gail Benick, Sharna Cohen (our terrific volunteer coordinator), Kathy Sykora, Naomi Fromm, and me.  


We’ve had baby showers, graduation parties, and celebrations at the shul, to mark many milestones.


It has not all been easy and there have been some bumps along the way, but we received so much back in return, seeing the success of the Khello/Mohamad family.


And it has also been an incredible community building exercise for our synagogue.


Since our initial involvement with this wonderful family, other members of the shul have come forward to assist Yazidi refugees and now we ask for the shul’s congregants to become involved again.


In 2015 JIAS was approached by the Canadian federal government to sponsor an African refugee woman in Israel who had been identified by the UNHCR as extremely vulnerable and needing to be resettled to a third country as quickly as possible. JIAS agreed. Shortly thereafter an NGO in Israel approached JIAS about other African refugees in need of resettlement because of their circumstances in Israel. Ad hoc groups began to form in Canada to participate in this process and CHAI is one of them. Our member Danny Schild is actively involved in this initiative. Those of you staying for the panel after services will hear more about that then, but this is another  opportunity for Darchei Noam members to participate in an important, meaningful initiative to assist refugees in need.


Chai has submitted sponsorship applications for 20 Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. Their applications are currently in process and they are expected to arrive sometime in 2021 and 2022. Chai will need volunteers to assist in their settlement and integration. That’s where you come in!


Please stay for the panel discussion that will follow services so that you can hear directly from Valantina, Mahmoud, and Sophia about their experiences and how well they are doing, in part because of our help. I hope that will inspire you to think about how you might be able to help out with the new Eritrean refugees who will be arriving over the next two years. Trust me. You will get so much in return.


Canadians are a generous people and so are the members of Darchei Noam. We hope many of you will step up to help this newest group of refugees feel safe and welcomed, and to integrate well as part of the Canadian fabric.


So that they, like other refugees and their children and grandchildren before them, can make a contribution to our country, and to the people in need who come after them.


We are blessed to have a strong community who understands our humanitarian role in refugee resettlement.


We can only bring a very few refugees to Canada and provide them with the supports they need to thrive, but there is much we can do to assist those millions who remain overseas by donating to the World Food Program and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


Together all of us can make a difference.


Shabbat Shalom.








Sun, 29 January 2023 7 Sh'vat 5783