Many churches have responded to the overwhelming need of these refugee families to become neighbours and, in the process, widened their church families. Refugees have been blessed by communities willing to guide them as they navigate the often difficult transition to a new life in Canada, and churches, in turn, have been blessed by new relationships and the opportunity to share Jesus’ love in tangible ways.
This includes congregations such as Immanuel CRC in Brampton, Ontario, who last year welcomed the Nazeer family into their lives. Carol Sybenga, a member of Immanuel CRC’s Refugee Sponsorship Committee, beautifully writes about her experience walking alongside this family, and the lessons she has learned about Christ’s love for those who search for refuge.
Last December marked the one year anniversary of Basharat, Ayesha, and Florence Nazeer stepping into my life — and I into theirs. I had no idea what this would mean to me, but I had felt a strong sense of reaching out to those who were vulnerable, destitute, and in need of protection and security. So I had volunteered to be on the Refugee Team at my church, Immanuel CRC in Brampton. We had met a couple of times last fall and were told it would take a few months before a family would arrive.
But then at the beginning of December 2017, we were informed by World Renew that a young Pakistani couple with a one year old daughter (temporarily living in Thailand) would be arriving — in less than two weeks!! Wow… what to do, what to do? There were so many things they would need, as well as a place to live. And so we reached out to our church community, who then faithfully and willingly provided all the many items the family would need to begin their lives among us, including temporary housing until we could find something more permanent. God was good and we saw how He was working in all the details.
Three days after the appeal for housing with our congregation, the Nazeer family arrived at Toronto Pearson airport on what turned out to be one of the coldest days of the winter — and winter hadn’t even officially begun! The cold was shocking to the family. Later on, we laughed about their first impression of stepping into the Canadian winter.
But as cold as it was outside, the warmth of a wonderful relationship began to develop. It was almost as if I had a son and daughter, as well as a little granddaughter. Once they moved into permanent housing, I lived only a few kilometres away from their apartment, and so found myself at their home quite often, helping them get settled and answering numerous questions. The Nazeers were incredibly hospitable and loved to interact with members of our Refugee Team — always offering a meal to any visitors, no matter what time of day you were visiting. And so I learned to enjoy roti and chapati, rice and biryani, and, of course, Indian tea.
I also began to share in the many stories of their struggles and the fear that gripped them as they worried about their safety and prayed the UNHCR would accept their request to come to Canada. I learned about the challenges of being a Christian in a country where Christians were a minority, and where people could be arrested for sharing their faith with their Muslim neighbours. I listened to their grief as they talked about family they left behind: a mother who was not well, a brother and sister-in-law who just had a baby, the funeral for a brother that they couldn’t attend. I listened to Ayesha’s story of conversion to Christianity and the fear she lived with as her Muslim family rejected her.
At times, I was overwhelmed by their stories and also the willingness with which they shared their lives and their stories. I remember one Saturday as I was taking Ayesha shopping for groceries, that she shared something very painful with me. I remember tearing up and telling her I loved her and her little family. She responded similarly and said I was like a mother to her.
More tears… no words.
And so, this year has been one of many blessings for me as I journeyed with the Nazeers. They have improved their English, slowly adjusted to life in Canada, and have become quite independent. They now make their way around town very easily, have friends in their community, are involved in ministry, and both have been able to find jobs, as well as get their G1 licenses.
Walking together with them has allowed me an opportunity to respond to God’s call to “clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the orphan and widow” — to give of my abundant life so others can live. But it has also opened my heart to new relationships and love shared.
I’m often reminded that Jesus also came into this world, vulnerable and needing refuge. He’s familiar with those longing for home, for comfort, for peace. And so He showed us how to live… He showed us how to love and to have compassion.
I pray God will continue to guide me to those places and people, to those seeking His grace.