How one mom helped 60 refugee families feel welcome in Nova Scotia

Cherryl Oakes with her kids and Abdurrahman Elajmi, one of many new friends that she has made through the organization that she started.

By her own admission, Cherryl Oake was never one for volunteering. But a call from a girlfriend about a newly arrived refugee family in a desperate situation changed everything. Rallying her community to furnish that Syrian family’s home led Oake to start NS Welcomes Syrian Refugees, an organization that has — so far — supported another 60 families, and brought new purpose to her life. We spoke to Oake about finding that purpose, and how she finds time for it all while working full-time, developing a business, and raising two active teenagers.

Tell us how you got involved in helping refugee families.

I got involved quite by accident. One night I was sitting here minding my own business and my girlfriend called me and said, “Cherryl do you have any dishes or furniture in your house you don’t need? I just found out that some of my neighbours here are refugees from Syria, they’re living in a house with their six children and haven’t got a stick of furniture or curtains for the windows.” My friend’s little girl had been playing with their son. She went home and told her mom they didn’t have anything, so her mom called me.

One of the many families that NS Welcomes Syrian Refugees has helped.

I gathered a few things, and I thought I’d throw a post up on Facebook to see if any friends had things to give. When I got up in the morning, the house was two-thirds furnished. People offered beds, couches – everything. Then someone offered a truck and that weekend we moved a whole townhouse of furniture in. Oh, my heavens they were so happy and grateful.

Not everyone gets why these families need so much help.

A lot of people really don’t understand the magnitude of change these families face when they come to Canada. I’ve had people say, “Well, can’t they just go to Value Village? They were given money to buy things.” Sure they can go to Value Village, but even if they’re lucky enough to find a couch that’s clean and presentable how the heck are they going to get it home? You can’t take the couch on the bus, they don’t have credit cards to rent a car or a truck, or a drivers licence when they first arrive. And they don’t speak English.

Yes, they are given money, that is true. But they are also told they won’t be getting anything else for near three months until the government catches up with their paperwork. When you’re coming here and you’ve lost everything you own to war, and then you live in a refugee camp for three to five years — in a tent in the middle of desert — then are thrust into a culture where you don’t know the language and you can’t even phonetically work out what people are saying because the alphabet is so different. They have no idea how much money they were given, or how much they can spend. They have to work out whether they can buy a couch or if they need to save it all to feed their family.

How did the project grow from that first family?

That first family led us to another three in the same area and the same situation. They were pretty much dumped after arrival and had nothing. Then those families led us to more, and we’ve now helped more than 60 families in the Halifax area furnish their houses. I put out more calls for stuff, and it became a bigger operation. People started donating money which we used to rent trucks. Easter weekend two years ago we helped 19 families in two days. Including collecting everything people offered us through Facebook and delivering it all to those families. We had no storage back then so we had to pick up and deliver at the same time. (Oake’s project has since been donated warehouse space — a game changer — allowing families to come and choose from furniture on hand.)

Donations came in strong whenever Oakes put the call out, and had to be stored in her friend’s basement until they were offered a free warehouse to help them.

Now we’re at a point that when there’s a new family in town people know to call me. But what we’re finding now is that when families arrive they are not so destitute. The community of Syrian families who are already here take them under their wing and show them the ropes.

Have your kids been involved in helping too?

Oh yes, they help. They move a lot of furniture, they’ve been through their closets and donated lots of their own clothing and toys, and they’ve asked their friends for things. This is definitely a family affair now, and we’ve become close to many of the families. My daughter has actually got together with one of the guys we’ve helped for just over a year. He is just amazing – and currently training to be a mechanic.

I guess you’re helping people get rid of things they don’t need too.

We are definitely stopping stuff going to landfill. We’ve recycled so much furniture and clothing. Last Christmas we did a coat drive at a Christmas party we put on for our families, and we collected hundreds of coats, boots, and winter gear.

What does doing this bring to your life?

I love it. Without question, it has changed my life. It’s broadened my perspective on a lot of things. It’s taught me the value of the things I have, and the value of the life I live in this country. It’s taught me a lot about other cultures and the way other families live. The families we help have been through so much, it’s so horrendous you cannot even imagine. You hear their stories and my gosh, you can’t help but want to do something. Plus, getting involved with something like this is an amazing teaching tool for your kids.

How do you find the time to do it?

Ha! Well, you might think you don’t have time but miraculously, if it’s important enough, you’ll find it. My life was very busy, but somehow I’ve carved out enough time to furnish 60 homes. I didn’t know that I had it in me!


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