Ahmad Al-Jamal, his wife Ghada, and their three young children were visibly excited as they waited at Edmonton International Airport on the evening of March 31, 2015.
Ahmad hadn’t seen his brother Mohamed for seven years, and now they would finally be reunited and able to meet each other’s children. As they waited, they were surrounded by approximately 60 other people, including 30 Mennonites. A few family members circled around to offer baklava, take pictures, and Skype family in Lebanon who were waiting for news of the arrival.
When a tired but happy-looking family of four entered the lobby, hugs, handshakes and tears of joy filled the room, and the Al-Jamal family graciously invited everyone to their home to celebrate.
The family is the first of several Syrian refugee families jointly sponsored by a partnership between Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Alberta and the Islamic Family Social Services Association. MCC’s role in the fledgling partnership is as the primary sponsorship agreement holder with the government, while the Islamic association is in charge of settlement arrangements. The newcomers, along with several more Syrian families scheduled to arrive in May, will live with relatives already in Canada for the first year.
One of the important reasons for the partnership between MCC and the association is to build bridges of understanding between newcomers and mainstream Canadians.
“The partnership speaks positively to the advantages and enthusiasm for partnership,” said Rick Enns of Edmonton First Mennonite Church’s Service and Outreach Branch. “It challenges the dominant narrative about Muslims in Canada today.”
Enns went on to say that it is good for the two groups to be seen as doing good together, and that it helps to build a sense of public safety, instead of fear.
Friendship matches between Mennonite families and the new arrivals are being arranged to help ease integration into Canadian society and to build healthy community connections.
Donna Entz, Mennonite Church Alberta’s outreach worker with the North Edmonton Ministry, was at the airport and at the celebration afterward, where, she said, some intense and positive conversation occurred. One of the relatives “was trying to figure out who we are as Mennonites, why 30 would show up when we were not related to the newcomers. As I walked out the door, he asked me if I really go to church on Sunday. I said yes and this week several more times because it is Holy Week. Then he asked if what we do is all paid for by us or the government. I said that what MCC does is paid by people in the churches. Then he said he wanted to send a donation to us.”
Entz explained that Mennonites reach out to newcomers because of Jesus and because many Mennonites also have a history that involves refugee experiences.
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