How Syrian refugees and their Hamilton sponsors are forming a unique bond

It's not a small job sponsoring a 14-member family from Aleppo. But a group from west Hamilton say they've gotten back as much as they've given.

'Right now, we can look at 14 people who aren't going to be killed'

Abdallah Al Rahmo, 6, hangs an ornament on his family's Christmas tree this month. A group from Dundas and west Hamilton sponsored his 14-member family's immigration to Canada. They fled Aleppo because of the bloody Syrian civil war. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It took Rachel Roper and Mohamad Al Rahmo about three days to figure out that he needed eggs.

These are humans who have just lived through the stuff we saw on television.- Rachel Roper

Al Rahmo is a privately sponsored Syrian refugee who came to Hamilton in January. Roper, a Westdale school teacher, is part of the group that sponsored him.

Al Rahmo, who spoke only Arabic, made a flapping chicken gesture to try to tell her what he needed from the store. Roper, who speaks only English, thought he wanted chicken. They went to three stores before she realized that eggs don't come in the same type of cartons in Syria, so he didn't recognize them.

"I screamed out. 'Eggs! Mohamad, you want eggs!'" Roper recalls. Then came laughter, and a wash of relief. Another game of mutual Charades had ended in success.

It's been a year of growing this unique bond between Al Rahmo's 14-member family and the large community group that brought them here.

Amir and Radwan Al Rahmo, ages 3 and 5, lived in a Lebanese refugee camp before coming to Canada. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Throughout the year, Roper and others have taken them to medical appointments and grocery stores. They tromped through the snow together this month and chopped down a Christmas tree, then decorated it in the old rented home they found for the family.

Ijust kept saying 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'- Rachel Roper

The formal sponsorship ends Jan. 8. As the family gains independence, Roper said, there's "a gradual release of responsibility."

But the bond continues. They even joke about their kids one day marrying each other.

"She is family now," Al Rahmo said through an interpreter this month.

It's hard to know exactly how many community groups privately sponsored families this year.

Support from the local group sponsoring the Al Rahmo family officially ends on Jan. 8, says Rachel Roper, third from left in the front row. But both sides say they've formed a permanent bond that's given them a new extended family. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Wesley Urban Ministries, lead organization for government-assisted refugees, has helped 74 private sponsor groups in Hamilton, Burlington, Niagara and surrounding area, said Andrea Buttars, manager of resource development. But groups don't have to contact Wesley, so there may be more out there.

Right now, we can look at 14 people who aren't going to be killed.- Rachel Roper

Overall, 38,713 Syrian refugees have come to Canada since Nov. 4, 2015, says Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Of those, 13,702 are privately sponsored and 3,877 are blended sponsorship, which means Ottawa kicks in money too.

Sponsorship is a lot of work. Roper's group raised about $64,000 for a year of the family's rent, food and other needs.

In the six months before their arrival, the group — currently about a dozen families from Dundas and west Hamilton — gathered clothes and furniture. They collected sheets and pillow cases, and dishes and food. They found a doctor and dentist.

The Al Rahmo​s were just names on a piece of paper then. Roper studied them and wondered.

"I just kept looking at the list, hoping some faces would pop up," she said.

Roper hit it off with Abdallah Al Rahmo, 6, right away because she had toys. "Right away, he came over to me. I said 'toys' in English. He told me what 'toys' are in Arabic. We bonded over playing." The little boy now speaks fluent English. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

They met face to face on Jan. 9, when the group took four minivans to a Toronto hotel to bring them home.

The first challenge: Roper tried to buckle three-year-old Mehdeyah into a car seat. The little girl had never been in one, and she kicked and screamed. Roper handed her a stuffed Care Bear. It didn't help.

"I just kept saying 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,'" Roper said. "She wouldn't come to me for two weeks after that."

That first meeting, Roper said, "was overwhelming.

"These are humans who have just lived through the stuff we saw on television. When you see them, you see how young and little they are. It was heartbreaking, yet it felt so good because they're here and they're safe now.

A Syrian refugee family talk about their sponsors and new friends

7 years ago
Duration 0:44
A Syrian refugee family talk about their sponsors and new friends

"Right now, we can look at 14 people who aren't going to be killed."

This is a life commitment for us.- Rachel Roper

The Al Rahmo​s have seen a lot of death. They're from Aleppo, where Mohamad worked in construction pre-war. Seven family members — two nephews and five cousins — have been killed.

The Al Rahmos lived in one crowded tent in a Lebanese refugee camp for more than two years. They landed in Canada with $100 U.S. and a few suitcases. Some had never been to school. That includes mom Souriyeh Al Safri, 35, who can't read in Arabic or English.

The story isn't over for them. Roper's group is trying to sponsor Mohamad's 20-year-old daughter, who lives in a refugee camp with her husband and baby. They are one of 21 local groups who are waiting after applying to the federal government.

The friendship, Roper said, "is a life commitment for us."

"We thought we were just doing this to benefit them. But it's been equal."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC