In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis Canadians have extended their hearts and hands to Syrian refugees — creating sponsorship groups to fund and support refugee families as they settle into Canadian life. One of those Canadians, Elizabeth Bromstein, has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the challenges refugees face since recently helping bring a refugee family to Toronto. Despite dwindling public interest, Bromstein gives her time and energy to the refugee cause, while working full-time as an editor and content strategist, and raising her four-year-old daughter. We wanted to share her story, and what pushes her to keep going.
What made you get involved with this cause?
I was moaning on Facebook about the war in Syria making me sad and not wanting to see all the dying children, and someone sent me a link to Lifeline Syria’s website saying, basically, hey, instead of whining why don’t you do something useful? You could try this. So, I posted on Facebook asking “Who wants to do this with me?” And a bunch of people hopped on board — some of whom I had never even met, as friends shared the post with their friends.
I then went to a Lifeline Syria meeting in Toronto with one of these people, and we just sort of followed in the instructions.
Something I always note about the private sponsorship program in Canada is that it’s an actionable solution that takes very little guesswork or understanding on the part of the private citizen. That’s not to say it’s not a lot of work, but it’s straightforward. You say “I want to do this” and someone literally hands you a step-by-step handbook on how to do every single little thing you need to do. A lot of people want to do many things with their lives but don’t know where to start. That is not a problem with this.
Tell me about your sponsorship experience.
I started a private sponsorship group called the Westside Refugee Response in the West End of Toronto. We raised funds to sponsor a family and then brought a family of three people to Canada — Amir, Noor, and their daughter Sally — who was almost two at the time of their arrival.
They are from Aleppo and had been in Istanbul biding their time until a solution came along. We didn’t know them and were matched with them by a Sponsorship Agreement Holder. Through the program the group supports the family for 12 months financially and helps them settle into the community. So, we set up the apartment, picked them up at the airport, settled them in, helped them enroll in school, showed them around. They’ve since started a food business, catering, specifically, and we help with the website, marketing, etc. Though honestly, we don’t really have to. This guy is motivated, and a real mover and shaker. Noor is having a baby this month, their second. We just threw her a shower.
You didn’t stop with the one family though, did you?
We are trying to help bring her sister and husband to Canada but it is a much slower process this time. Most of our previous group is not involved. My husband and one other group member are doing it this time, and we found two more people who are interested. My husband and I walked to Niagara Falls from Toronto, with our daughter, who was three at the time — she rode in a stroller — to raise the funds needed for the sponsorship.
We raised about $15,000 total and borrowed the rest to have it in place for the application — because we are not working with a SAH — which acts as a financial guarantor — this time around, we had to have all the money in the bank before making the application. We are now waiting for the application to be processed. It’s taking forever and this is terrible for everyone involved but I won’t get into that right now.
I also volunteer at a shelter called Matthew House in Toronto, making lunches. This organization supports newcomers who have escaped war torn countries and dangerous situations in the interim stage when they have no status, so during court proceedings for resident status etc.
My friend Terry Dellaportas does all this with me. She drove the supply vehicle on our walk also, she’s incredible. My husband David just basically does whatever I ask him to do when it comes to refugee related tasks, he is incredibly supportive.
Did you expect to get THAT involved?
I didn’t actually have many expectations. But no, probably not.
What does doing this bring to your life?
I like the feeling that we’re doing something, even if it isn’t much. I also feel like a bit of ambassador for the Jewish people, who are despised in the Middle East. A lot of Jews are involved in refugee related efforts, and the more visible we are, the more those who were raised to think all Jews are evil and should die might change their minds.
I’ve also found this to be a valuable lesson about appreciating what you have and the time you have. People in Canada complain so much it’s insane. Me too. I am not what you’d call a stoic.
Our new friends Amir and Noor are people who lost everything. They came from middle class families. They arrived here with a couple of suitcases, leaving their families behind for who knows how long. A bomb hit their apartment in Aleppo, and they’ve seen people dying right in front of them. They had nothing when they got here except some clothes, each other, and what we could give them. They never complain. Their incredible good nature and positivity in the face of everything they’ve dealt with is very inspiring.
I think a lot of people have forgotten the refugee thing now and moved on, but why is important to continue offering support and raising awareness?
This is driving me insane. Nothing has changed. Millions of people are still dying and losing their homes, families, and everything they have. It’s horrible. You don’t do your one tiny little thing and then just figure everything is fixed or, hey, you did your part.
It’s important to continue offering support and raising awareness simply because support is needed and people don’t seem to know or care anymore.
If you are alive and healthy and lucky enough to live in a safe geographical area with a roof over your head and food to eat, I feel it is your responsibility to help others and share your good fortune. I can’t force this on anyone, but I can do my part.
How does being a mom affect how you view this situation?
I do find it harder to see children suffering now that I have one, who was around two years old, I think, when I started getting involved with refugee related efforts. It was never easy but it’s much harder now. It’s also harder to turn away and pretend you didn’t see it, because it could be your child. We live in a safe country but every such foundation is precarious. My family died in a genocide in Europe — EUROPE — less than 80 years ago. We are literally a generation removed from the largest genocide in modern history — and several others, including Cambodia and Rwanda — let’s not lessen the horror of those either. Nothing is safe or sure. EVER.
I want my daughter to have a nice life if possible, and to be the sort of person who tries to make things nice for others also. I don’t know any other way to do that than to set an example.
What did you find that you had in common with the Syrian moms you’ve met?
I guess I think we all have things in common. We all love our children and our families, and most of us just want to get through the day with as little pain and fuss as possible. We just want to feed our families and love our kids and go to sleep at night without the risk of someone blowing up our houses, though we take that for granted in Canada.
What’s been hardest about doing all this? Any major frustrations?
There was a lot of infighting with my group. It was stupid and very frustrating. If I had it to do over, I’d argue about fewer things and not get involved in other people’s arguments. That was a learning experience. I’m also frustrated with the waning interest in the issue and the lack of movement from the Canadian government on current cases.
What other moms do you admire most?
I admire Noor for her calm spirit. I admire Terry Dellaportas, my partner in all things refugee, for her ability to stay on top of shit like nobody’s business, and the clear love and admiration her adult children have for her. I admire my own mother, who was an orphan in Scotland after WWII, for her resilience and strength in the way she came to Canada with something like a suitcase and a can-do attitude. She never complains.
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