When Brian Darweesh and Reem Younes got married, they were living as refugees in Lebanon. They left their homes in Syria, fleeing violence and a threat on Darweesh’s life. At their wedding there was no white dress and no party. Just a civil ceremony in a foreign country.
But then a little over a year later, the couple had another wedding ceremony, this time in Winnipeg. Although most of their family and friends were a world away, the church was still full. People from Winnipeg’s Douglas and Jubilee Mennonite churches, their new family and friends, gathered to support them.
The congregations had sponsored the couple as refugees to Canada through a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) private sponsorship agreement.
Douglas Mennonite had also sponsored Darweesh’s sister Maysoun, along with her husband and two daughters, who arrived in 2012. The family has become a part of that church community: they’re in a small group, have friends in the congregation and Maysoun is a member of the church. “We didn’t feel lonely,” she says. “My family is very far away, but I have a family here.”
When it became clear her brother and his wife needed refugee status too, the church decided to help. In partnership with Jubilee Mennonite, enough money was raised to support the couple for one year, and the churches worked with MCC on the application process. Once it was approved, the resettlement committee quickly found and furnished an apartment. And after the couple arrived, the church helped with practical things such as signing up for health care and a bank account.
Douglas Mennonite has experience welcoming refugees. Since its founding it has sponsored seven families from Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Colombia, Eritrea and now Syria. The congregation has always been supportive, says Heidi Reimer, who is on the resettlement committee, especially because many of them or their family members were refugees themselves. “We do it because we love people and we feel that this is what God calls us to do: to reach out, to welcome the stranger, to be hospitable, to share what we have,” she says. And when the families also become part of the church community, that is an added benefit.
It was while Darweesh and Younes were still in Lebanon that the congregation got the idea of throwing a wedding celebration. A day that could fulfill Younes’s dream of wearing a white dress and saying wedding vows in front of God and people who support them.
While the couple’s lives have been filled with challenges over the last year, a celebration was something church member Krista Neustaedter Barg felt she could give them. “We heard Reem’s childhood dream had not come true,” she said at the reception. “She married the man of her dreams, which was awesome, but she didn’t get to have the wedding of her dreams. And so I told her I couldn’t fix most of the other problems in her life, they were too big for me, but planning a party? We could do that.”
The celebration was pulled off with the help of many people from the church and community. Some helped with tailoring the clothing, volunteers worked with Maysoun to make a traditional Syrian dessert, invitations were printed free of charge, and much of the food was donated.
It is clear that although they have been with the congregation for less than a year, Darweesh and Younes are becoming part of the community, just like Maysoun and her family. As Younes said to everyone gathered at the reception, “Even if my family is not here, really you are my family.”