ORANGEVILLE, Ont. – Brian and Philomena Logel have had their century-old farmhouse to themselves for more than a decade, but they can’t wait to once again see it filled with the exuberance of a young family, if only until a more permanent home is found for their Syrian charges.
The Logels had planned on renting a suitable home for the Alhajalis — Emad, his wife Razan, their daughter, Fatma, and son Mohammad — before the family arrives from Jordan, where they are living among some 630,000 other Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country.
But word came down Sunday that the Alhajalis had received their exit visas and now they’re heading to Orangeville, Ont., on Dec. 14.
As the retired couple hunt for a three-bedroom apartment for the family in the small town about an hour west of Toronto, they are making arrangements to welcome the Alhajalis into their own home during one of the most hectic times of the year — and introduce them to some of the holiday traditions of their new country.
The Logels’ three children and five grandchildren, themselves frequent visitors to the family homestead located on four hectares outside town, are coming for Christmas, though the Logels recognize the holiday isn’t one their guests celebrate.
Nonetheless, Philomena Logel says, “it’s going to be the most rewarding Christmas of all.”
“For the first time in my life I’m actually going to be making a turkey because it’s going to be big enough for all these extra people,” she says, noting she’s tracked down a halal butcher in the area for the meal.
“We won’t be having ham and bacon for breakfast, though,” she adds with a laugh, since Muslims are barred from eating pork.
Food is among the dozens of items on the Logels’ checklist as they and other sponsoring families strive to make the Alhajalis’ arrival as smooth as possible.
The Logels, who retired in 2013 after running a private school, are part of a group co-sponsoring the Alhajalis with their local United Church. They are working through the Anglican United Refugee Alliance, one of several organizations that have deals with the federal government to allow them to sponsor refugees from lists provided by the United Nations.
While thousands of kilometres away in Jordan, the Alhajalis are fretting about learning English and finding work in Canada, the Logels are busy stockpiling donated furniture, drawing up lists of traditional Syrian pantry staples to fill their cupboards and charting routes to the nearest ESL centres.
Razan is trained as a nurse and midwife, so Brian Logel has reached out to the local midwife association, hoping they can help her get her credentials recognized. Doctors involved in the sponsorship program are lining up health insurance cards. Another doctor, a Muslim woman, has also agreed to take on the family as patients.
The couple is already thinking of giving the Alhajali children skating lessons when their property freezes over, and swimming lessons in their pool.
Though they long ago obtained the required $27,000 required to sponsor a family of four — thanks to a donor who had supported their sponsorship of Iraqi refugees five years ago — the Logels and their sponsorship group continue to raise funds through community concerts and samosa sales to ensure the Alhajalis have enough to get by on.
Regular email exchanges have allowed the families to get to know each other, though Brian Logel admits to holding back for fear the arrangement would fall through and devastate the Alhajalis. The arrival of the visas, and the recent change in leadership in Ottawa, have eased their concerns, he says.
“Because it’s always been unsure whether they would maybe be turned down at some point, we’ve never really tried to get them too excited with details. We’ve sent a few photographs of our yard in the fall with the beautiful leaves and things like that, but we haven’t tried to build up their hopes only to have them dashed,” he says.
“Now we’ll have to start making inquiries about their weight and height (for clothes) and giving them more suggestions, like how they shouldn’t waste their luggage space on towels and things like that — we have all of that stuff here.”
It was through the couple, as well, that Emad Alhajali’s cousin, Awad, and his family also found sponsors in Orangeville, so that the families — who are currently living together in Irbid — can remain close.
“We feel really happy to be able to keep at least two members of this family together … so many of these families have been torn apart,” said Lynda Cranston, who is leading the sponsorship effort with her husband, David La Gallais.
Awad, his wife, Asmaa, and their four children likely won’t arrive until spring, says Cranston, who expects to turn in their application today.
Filling out forms, collecting documents, having them translated and putting together a settlement plan has been “a second full-time job,” she says, but one she and La Gallais, both 54, felt they needed to take on.
“Both of our children are adopted from Vietnam and as everyone knows, after the Vietnam War was over, Canada really stepped up and took in thousands of refugees,” she says. “So we felt it was important to demonstrate to our children that we as a family, our community and the country would step up again and do something.”
Compared with their previous hometown of Toronto, Orangeville is “not the most diverse place,” Cranston says, and the couple has wondered how the community of roughly 27,000 will respond to the new arrivals.
Only 55 Muslims live in the town, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, and the nearest mosque is about 40 kilometres away in Brampton. Cranston says their group is already planning driving schedules to take the family to the mosque if they want.
She stresses that her children, now nine and 14 years old, say they have never felt excluded because of their race in the five years the family has lived in town.
And while there may be some backlash, the overall response has been one of support and excitement, she says.
“It’s brought our community closer together and reinforced my faith in humanity.”