Saying thanks: Syrian newcomers plan dinner for homeless in Saint John

When Syrian Reham Abazid and her young family arrived in Canada as refugees in January 2016, Saint Johners reached out to help. Now she and friends in the Syrian community want to return the favour.

'I feel like I am part of this people,' Reham Abazid says

Reham Abazid, 30, arrived in Saint John in 2016 as a refugee. On Sunday, she and her friends from the Syrian community are cooking a free supper for Saint Johners who are homeless. (Julia Wright / CBC)

When Syrian Reham Abazid and her young family arrived in Canada as refugees in January 2016, they "didn't know anything," she said.

"Saint Johners helped me to get food, get a home, understand the language, everything."

Now, Abazid, 30, who lives in the Crescent Valley neighbourhood of the city's north end, and others in the Syrian community want to return the favour.

On Sunday, Aug. 27, Abazid and six other women will prepare a free community supper of Syrian cuisine — tabbouleh, rice with peas, potatoes and grape leaves — for Saint Johners who are homeless.

More than 100 people are expected to attend the dinner at the Outflow Men's Shelter at 162 Waterloo St. at 5:30 p.m.

Long journey

Abazid fled from Syria to Jordan in 2012 with her husband, young son and baby daughter after their home was bombed.

They spent three years in the capital, Amman, as displaced persons before arriving in Saint John as government-assisted refugees.

Nearly two years later, Abazid's husband, Mohammed Alnajjar, works as a mechanic at a local car dealership, while Abazid raises their son and daughter, now seven and four.

Reham Abazid arrived in Saint John in January 2016 with her husband, Mohammed Alnajjar and their two young children. She wants to repay Saint Johners for the kindness they have shown her family. (CBC)

As she settled in, Abazid said, she started to notice the poverty in her community.

"I saw a lot of poor here in New Brunswick," she said. "Not only in Crescent Valley."

She realized that only a small percentage of her neighbours were employed. She recalled talking with a young man panhandling for change on King Street who greeted her with a smile and thanked her for coming to Saint John.

In response, she said, "I love to help refugees and homeless people," she said. "I feel like I am part of this people. I think this is a good way to say thanks."

'I don't like Muslims'

Some Saint John residents, who are struggling financially, can sometimes project their frustrations onto newcomers, she said.

"One month ago, I went to Social Development," said Abazid. "When I was parking the car, some lady was so angry. She told me, 'Hey, you are a newcomer, you make Saint John very bad. Go to your home, I don't like Muslims.'

"I just watched this lady, because my words could not help me to say anything.

I lost my home — but Saint John is my favourite place now.- Reham Abazid

"But I understand her. Maybe she is thinking I am a newcomer, I have a lot of help from the government, and she didn't have anything."

"I would love to meet her and explain to her why I am here."

Abazid volunteers at the YMCA of Greater Saint John, helped found a Syrian Food Market at the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, and speaks about her experiences at lunch-and-learn events in her community.

"When I was refugee in Jordan, I didn't have anything to serve my family, to get my family food," she said.

"Even if I have money here, I will keep this feeling [of impoverishment] because it is very important to understand these people."

'A wonderful way to connect'

The idea to cook Syrian food for the homeless came about after Reham Abazid and her friends brought supper for the staff at the men's shelter.

"I was very moved by her, and her story," said Wendy Pottle of Outflow. "They cooked the staff an amazing meal, then they agreed to provide food for the Sunday supper. "

"This will be something unique and special for the people that we serve."

"They want to give back, and this is a beautiful way to do it. Having a meal and breaking bread together breaks down barriers in ways that other things can't. People enjoying your food that you cooked with love is a wonderful way for people to connect."

Perogies, chicken skewers, flatbread and other treats prepared by Syrian newcomer Yamama Zein Alabdeen and served on Multicultural Day in Saint John. The food at the dinner on Sunday will be 'something unique and special for the people that we serve,' says Wendy Pottle of Outflow Ministry. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The women are Muslim, and Outflow is a Christian organization, also conveys a powerful message, Pottle said.

"This is a way of discovering the many ways in which we are all alike."

What Abazid hopes to impress upon the community is that "newcomers are not just here to watch," she said. "We want to do something for Canadians. Something to change the minds of people who decide they do not like newcomers.

"I lost my home — but Saint John is my favourite place now."