Canadian churches cross denominational lines to welcome Syrian refugees

Siblings Roqayah and Hussein Alassaf lived in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan before resettling in Canada. (Photo courtesy of the Alassaf family)

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DAUPHIN, Manitoba (RNS)—Ken Yakielashek, a Roman Catholic semiretired farmer in the Canadian Prairies, says he remembers when Christians of varying denominations “wouldn’t talk to one another.”

To Yakielashek, that makes what’s happened in Dauphin—a rural community 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Winnipeg—all the more remarkable.

Helping neighbors in need

A year and a half ago, Yakielashek’s parish and two other churches put aside theological differences and came together to sponsor the resettlement of three Syrian refugee families to this town of 8,500.

“We have three different theological outlooks on things, but they’ve been pushed to the background,” said Ron Marlin, a lay leader for Dauphin First United Church, a liberal mainline Protestant congregation.

“The focus was very much on helping our neighbors in need,” agreed Cordell Lind, whose wife, Lorayln Lind, is pastor of the evangelical First Baptist Church of Dauphin.

In the United States, new President Trump’s effort to bar refugees from certain Muslim-majority nations deemed terrorism threats—including Syria—has dominated headlines for weeks.

But in Canada, the government has welcomed more than 40,000 men, women and children fleeing Syria’s civil war since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s October 2015 election.

“Canada is doing the right thing by providing refuge for those so desperately seeking safety,” Trudeau has said.

Back in September 2015, a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi drowned after a 15-foot boat ferrying him to a Greek island capsized. Pictures of the toddler’s lifeless body on a beach horrified millions around the globe, including Yakielashek, a parish council member at St. Viator’s Catholic Church in Dauphin.

‘Somebody has to do something’

Yakielashek felt a personal connection to the Syrian refugees because his Polish grandfather “escaped from situations similar to that in eastern Europe.”

“This isn’t right,” Yakielashek said he told his parish priest, John Legitimas. “Somebody has to do something.”

Legitimas talked to Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg, and received approval to look into sponsoring a refugee family.

The same boy’s death spurred Dauphin First United Church to act: “That galvanized us to say, ‘OK, we can’t just write a check and send it somewhere else,’” said Marlin, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police district supervisor.

Meanwhile, First Baptist Church already had connections to the Middle East and was moving forward with plans to help, Cordell Lind said.

Interchurch refugee team formed

When the three churches learned of one another’s efforts, they committed to pool resources and share ideas where they could. The churches formed the Dauphin Interchurch Refugee Team—“which, by the way, has the acronym DIRT,” Lind said with a chuckle.

Refugees Canada 300In the rural Canadian community of Dauphin, Manitoba, Cordell Lind (left) of the evangelical First Baptist Church and Ron Marlin of the mainline Dauphin First United Church put aside theological differences to focus on helping resettle Syrian refugee families. Joining in the effort was St. Viator’s Catholic Church, a parish of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. (RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.)While working together, each church maintained its individual sponsorship of a Syrian family. The refugees—15 men, women and children in all, plus a baby born after their arrival—began new lives in Dauphin a year ago.

Months later, the Arabic-speaking immigrants—still learning English—told Canadian media their church sponsors and other community friends had become like family.

“It feels like home,” Asya Alassaf, one of the Syrian mothers, told the Winnipeg Free Press.

“It’s good,” said Louai Alassaf, Asya’s husband. “Mainly, people are very nice.”

Not universally welcomed, but mostly positive

But not everyone. Soon after news broke that the families were coming, a man made threatening telephone calls saying he hoped Dauphin First United Church “would burn in hell,” according to local media reports.

Still, most area residents—like the majority of Canadians in general—have responded positively, said the sponsoring churches’ representatives.

Canada Refugees 350The three Syrian families that resettled in Dauphin, Manitoba, gather for a photo at a going-away celebration held for their interpreter at Riding Mountain National Park. (Photo courtesy of Ron Marlin)“It still gives me goose bumps when I think about it,” Lind said. After picking up one Syrian family at the Winnipeg airport, he said, “we stopped in a little town called Neepawa for a cup of coffee on the way home, and everyone in the McDonald’s had to come over to welcome them to Canada.”

Ukrainian immigrants first settled in Dauphin more than a century ago, but the community has become much more multicultural in the last 15 years, Yakielashek said.

“For the most part, the reaction (to the Syrian refugees) has been welcoming from all walks of life, from doctors to lawyers to dentists to farmers to accountants to ordinary laborers and teachers,” he said.

“We’ve got lots of land here. We have lots of opportunities for the country to grow. Why can’t we bring people in here to contribute? I don’t expect them to have any more or less than we do, but just a chance at life.”

Congregations drawn closer together

Not only have the churches helped make life better for the refugees, but they also have built bridges drawing Dauphin’s Christians closer together, the representatives said. The Dauphin Interchurch Refugee Team is making plans to bring more Syrian refugees to town.

To be sure, the days of Christians refusing to communicate across confessional lines because of theological differences began to fade long before the refugees’ arrival. And the cooperation on their absorption didn’t remove the differences that remain.

For example, Marlin said Dauphin First United Church sees no need to proselytize the refugees—all Muslims.

“It’s not our job to convert them from their lifelong religion to another,” Marlin said. “It’s our job to support them in the celebration of their religion and the celebration of their humanity.”

Cordell Lind, on the other hand, said First Baptist Church “would love for Mahmoud and Hala (the couple sponsored by the congregation) to meet Jesus.”

“So, we pray for our family, and we pray for the other families and would be very excited if they did” become Christians, Lind said. “If they don’t, they will still be our lifelong friends and part of our family.”


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