For Seifan Istefan, seeing his 2-year-old son Zenos giggle and roll around in the grass of King’s University College is beyond words. Just two weeks ago, a moment like that seemed impossible.
Seifan, his wife, Talar, and their son had been in Turkey for more than three years, stuck there in hopes of starting a new life beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, their former homeland.
More than four years after it began, the Syrian civil war has killed an estimated 220,000 people, half of whom are believed to be civilians. The United Nations estimates that 7.6 million people are internally displaced. When you also consider refugees, more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.
But as unsure of a future as they once had, that veil of sadness has blossomed into a new life for the Istefans in London, thanks to the Refugee Sponsorship Program at King’s.
“This is exciting for us. We’re so happy. At last, we are in a safe country,” Seifan said. “We have seen a lot of terrible things, but there is so much more than you see on the TV. Everyone in that country has their own terrible story.”
Just about to celebrate its first year anniversary, the King’s refugee program brought together a strong-knit community at the Western affiliate and Christ the King Parish, with initially small expectations.
“One of the things I brought forward to the pastoral team here was that I would like us to help one person. I realize we can’t help everyone. But we can do something,” said Rev. Michael Bechard, Director of Campus Ministry at King’s. “Part of it was to create an awareness of how fortunate we are here in our community. And we are becoming increasingly more aware of people across the global community that are living in some pretty deplorable situations.
“Our focus in Campus Ministry has always been to support initiatives locally and globally. We’re always looking for a project to harness the energy of the community.”
King’s welcomed its first refugees in March, two young displaced men from the Rwandan genocide. They were followed by a refugee from Iraq, the Istefan family and, just this past week, another person from Rwanda.
“So much of it is just bringing them to a place of safety. After that, you need to ensure their medical needs are taken care of, getting them an education, facilitate jobs, community integration and socialization, working through the affects of trauma. There is a lot to this,” Bechard said.
Seifan, who was born in Iraq, moved to Syria when things became unstable in his home country. There, he met Syrian-born Talar, his soon-to-be wife. Soon, the two were once again on the move as the conflict in Syria began to escalate. The pair fled to Turkey, where their son was born.
While safe in Canada, Seifan cannot help but worry about family and friends still caught in Syria, in particular his wife’s entire family, currently held up in a small Syrian village and surrounded by ISIS.
“Of course, my wife’s family, we are worried about them,” he said. “You don’t know at any time what might happen. The story in Syria does not change. It’s been years and nothing has happened.”
It’s this sort of horror, Bechard said, most Canadians cannot comprehend.
“Imagine seeing your friends and family shot,” he said. “There is no way you can get money in to them – no practical way to get them out. Imagine being here (London) knowing your mother, your father, your two sisters and your 10-year-old brother are in Syria. You are waiting for notification to let you know they may have died. They will always have that worry of ‘Where is my family?’ ‘Will they make it?’”
While King’s is a Christian community, Bechard made it clear the refugee program is not about simply Christians helping Christians.
“We are looking to sponsor whoever is most in need,” he said. “We want to help people. This isn’t a nice thing we’re doing; it’s part and parcel of who we are as Christians.”
The program’s success is about building relationships with the refugees as they create a new life for themselves in London. While the legal responsibilities that come with sponsoring a refugee – such as financial support and getting them settled – comes to a conclusion after one year, Bechard said these connections will last much longer.
“We are the only family for them. We have an obligation to be part of their lives. I anticipate they will go on for generations,” he said, adding Seifan and his family realize the importance of how education is the key to success. “I would like to think that in 16 years we will see Zenos here at King’s.”
For now, Seifan, who began a job with the City of London yesterday, is content to watch his son, laugh, run, trip and get back up again. It’s a life every 2-year old should experience and for Zenos, it’s the only life he’ll know and remember.
“My son did not see what I have seen – this is good,” said Seifan, who appreciates all the help and friendship he has been overwhelmed with in just two weeks. “I may be tired, but this kind of tired I am happy with. They have shown me how life will be better for child and for my family.”
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FIND OUT MORE. Explore the King’s University College’s Refugee Sponsorship Program, or to donate with time or money, by contacting Campus Ministry Director Rev. Michael Bechard at 519-963-1477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.