Pictured alongside St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group chair Rev. Gwen Ament are the Gardiner family from the Ilderton area. On Sunday, they presented the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group with a cheque for $2,500 – the pooled funds they would have spent on Christmas shopping this year, but decided to use to support the Syrian refugees being welcomed into the area. Back row, from left, are Scott McKay, Jack Gardiner, Luke McKay, Lindsay McKay, Leah McKay, Adam Stan, Rev. Gwen Ament. Front: Michelle McKay, Justin Crawford, Cheryl Gardiner and Arnette Gardiner.
By Dan Rankin
Ilderton-area resident Cheryl Gardiner said that, this year, her family “just decided to do Christmas different.”
“We decided instead of gift giving we would pool our funds that we would spend on Christmas and put it towards supporting Syrian refugees,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be able to support them.”
Judging by the reaction of St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group chair Rev. Gwen Ament when Gardiner presented her with the cheque last Sunday, she was also thrilled by their decision.
Rev. Ament, who serves as minister for St. Marys Presbyterian Church, was visibly moved by the Gardiners’ donation of $2,500.
“It’s very exciting,” Rev. Ament said, explaining that between money donated online and donated funds being held at some area churches the sponsorship group has raised about $45,000. That’s just shy of their initial goal of $50,000, she said. “With that, we’ve now gone ahead and are now beginning to work on bringing a second family.”
Gardiner said her family chose to donate to St. Marys’ refugee sponsorship group because it was important for them to support a smaller group close-to-home where they could know the people they were contacting. “We’re just outside of St. Marys, so it’s local,” she said. “We’re hoping to meet the family someday, actually.”
They may not have to wait very long. The first family, made up of a grandmother, her three daughters, son-in-law and two young grandchildren, were due to arrive by plane in Toronto any day, she added. “They’ve been held in Lebanon for about two-and-a-half years now,” she said. “They would’ve been trying to make their way out of Syria before that.”
The group has arranged with Wildwood Conservation Area to ensure a 12-seat van and driver are available to bring the family to St. Marys together in the same vehicle. “We have a translator organized and we’ll be able to keep them all in the same space for the trip home from the airport,” she said.
An apartment has been prepared and, “at this point, we have absolutely everything ready,” Rev. Ament said.
Soon after arriving, the family is scheduled to receive a number of assessments at the employment office in St. Marys and in London to measure things ranging from their understanding of English to the level of trauma they sustained after years of in the midst of a civil war. “We’ve been told they all speak Arabic,” Rev. Ament said. “It could be that they may have a bit of English but they don’t have a lot. We have no idea. They’ll come as they are and we’ll greet them as they are.”
Rev. Ament stressed the importance of remembering that, prior to the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, “their standard of living was just like ours.”
“They enjoyed electronics and all of that stuff, except that now everything has been obliterated,” she said. “These are people who have had a life and had a home and a good life, and, for five years, have just been living in hell. Everything we know so far is that they’re very industrious and the vast majority of them just want to get on with living and get some type of life again.”
She said their experiences remind her to be thankful every day, especially at this time of year, for all that we enjoy as Canadians, “because there are huge populations out there who just don’t have it.”
Thanks to the work of the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group and the kind and thoughtful community donations from groups and families such as the Gardiners, at least two families who have known nothing but hardships for the past few years can look forward to the promise of a Happy New Year here in St. Marys.
Donations can be made to the group online at Donate.MCCCanada.ca/registry/st-marys-refugee-sponsorship-group.