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Turning a house into a home: Pictou County working together to welcome Syrian newcomers

Rania Al-Methyb arrived in Pictou County in 2016. Today she is an essential part of the Pictou County Safe Harbour team.
Rania Al-Methyb arrived in Pictou County in 2016. Today she is an essential part of the Pictou County Safe Harbour team. - Brendan Ahern

PICTOU COUNTY - Syrian families received a warm welcome to Canada despite cold weather that had put snow on the ground the night before.

The newcomers sat in the front row at the Trinity United Church Oct. 19. Behind them were 80 students from New Glasgow Academy, the complete Trinitarians Seniors’ Choir and some 50 community members, who had all come to welcome them with songs, stories, food and gifts.

Rania Al-Methyb sat in front with the newcomers. She's played an important role in their resettlement.

“The families worry because they do not know where they are going,” says Rania Al-Methyb, who first arrived in New Glasgow in 2016.

“I speak with them,” she says. “I translate for them.”

Language barriers

This flags one of the biggest barriers between newcomers and the locals looking to help them: language. It's seen both in the early stages of resettlement and then later in education and employment, and even in tasks like learning the proper way to put out the garbage or receiving prescriptions at the drug store.

The refugees who arrived in 2016 are filling in the gaps, providing translated instructions for everyday things. Educational institutions like New Glasgow Academy and NSCC are broadening their services to help out as well.

“Where we can really step up to the plate would be in the way of language training,” says NSCC Pictou campus principal David Freckelton.

“It’s very hard for any newcomer who doesn’t speak English to even get their driver’s licence, for example. So, you need to have a basic understanding of the language to access some of the most basic things in Canada."

Five tips to lend a hand

  • Want to help? Volunteer! There are a lot of services that volunteers can help out with.
  • The children will be in school; encourage kids to be welcoming and understanding
  • Some newcomers may have experienced psychological and physical trauma. Be sensitive and patient.
  • It’s a new country and a whole new community; stopping on the street to say hello can go a long way toward making it feel a little more like home. 
  • If you have Syrian refugees over for dinner, ask about cultural or dietary restrictions first, particularly for those who are Muslim.

Working together

Pictou County Safe Harbour is sponsoring five of the seven families in New Glasgow through the blended visa program with the help of funding from the Ottawa-based Shapiro Foundation. Being able to focus more on resettlement and less on fundraising is freeing up time and energy, which can be put toward establishing more formalized support services for future refugees and newcomers.

Sarah MacIntosh Wiseman, Dave Hanley and Cathy Hanley assembling furnishings to provide a home for the first of seven Syrian families being resettled in Pictou County this month.
Sarah MacIntosh Wiseman, Dave Hanley and Cathy Hanley assembling furnishings to provide a home for the first of seven Syrian families being resettled in Pictou County this month.

“We’ve had discussions with the YMCA, with the local schools where we know the families are going to be going, and with the community college,” says Sarah MacIntosh Wiseman, chairperson of the Safe Harbour group. “We don’t think it’s good for anyone if we all work in silos.”

New Glasgow Academy is expecting six new Syrian students this year.

“We have great connections with Pictou County Safe Harbour,” says New Glasgow Academy principal Allison Wilson.

“We’ve had things translated for families, and we have iPads that we were able to get with apps for translation and communication.”

That, along with the school’s newcomers club which meets once a week, is designed to help build a support network for Syrian students into the school before they start.

“Kind of like a circle of friends idea, where they can get together and really connect with our students, ask questions, get together and learn from each other’s cultures," she explains.

Helping newcomers feel at home

By travelling to and from the airport with groups like Safe Harbour and Communities Assisting Refugees Now in Pictou County, Al-Methyb is doing a lot more than just translating. She’s helping make newcomers feel at home and allay their apprehensions in ways that other volunteers just can’t.

“It’s not so much the translation, as it is the empathy of knowing exactly what they’re going through,” says Trinity United Church Rev. Donna Tourneur. “To see Rania take the lead, when she was once the one that we were meeting at the airport, has been really amazing.”

With the seventh family arriving earlier this week, Al-Methyb, MacIntosh Wisemen, Tourneur and other volunteers have been hard at work getting available properties ready for habitation.

“They’re basically sitting down and saying, ‘if I were in the shoes of these families and I had kids this age, what would I need in my household?'” says MacIntosh Wiseman.

“Some new homes come fully furnished,” says MacIntosh Wiseman. “One family is going into a little home that needed a lot of elbow grease and hard work, but we’ve had a crew of women spending every night of the last three weekends in there painting and scrubbing and fixing up windows and getting the whole place ready.”

Of course, preparing a house is one thing - transforming it into a home is something else.

“Because those are two very different things,” says MacIntosh Wiseman. “Obviously, you need beds, utensils, couches, and linens to have a house, but what are the touches that make it a home?”

The family that arrived in New Glasgow on Oct. 17 found winter coats already hanging in the hallways and hand-drawn pictures from the children of volunteers pinned to a fridge that was stocked with the help of the local Muslim community. The smell of food prepared by another woman who arrived back in 2016 permeated the air.

“One of the women, Ghada Al-Metheb, is actually going in before each family arrives and she’s cooking a full Syrian meal for them,” says MacIntosh Wiseman. “So that when they get in from the airport, not only is there a meal waiting for them, but the house smells like home.”

With each of the families newly arrived, the wider scope of the community’s resettlement plans are taking shape, including plans to hire a newcomer service coordinator in the coming months.

In the meantime, volunteers like Al-Methyb wants to assure the newcomers that they’ve made it home.

“New Glasgow is beautiful. It is very quiet, and everybody helps you.”


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