How a Hutterite community and a Syrian refugee family found common ground

A Muslim family from Syria and a Hutterite family from southwestern Manitoba have created a community by focusing on similarities rather than differences.

Syrian Muslims have become like family for the members of Manitoba's Green Acres colony who sponsored them

Najwa Hussein Al Mohamad, far left, and Rayad Alhamud, standing right, and their children came to Manitoba after being sponsored by Paul Waldner, standing centre, and his family. The Syrian family were refugees in Lebanon before coming to Canada in 2016. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

A Hutterite colony in southwestern Manitoba may seem a world away from Syria — but Reyad Alhamud says he can see a connection between life in his home country and the communal life of Hutterites.

"When we met the Hutterites, it's the exact same as in my country," said Alhamud.

"The work is the same. They work on a farm, they make everything at home the same — just a bit different."

Alhamud, his wife and three children came to Canada from Syria after being sponsored by a family from the Green Acres Hutterite colony.

Now, the Alhamuds are like family to Paul Waldner — a teacher in the southwestern Manitoba colony near Wawanesa, about 35 kilometres southeast of Brandon — whose family sponsored Alhamud and his family.

Waldner describes himself as more open-minded than many in his community, and when he heard about the Syrian refugee crisis, he felt compelled to do something.

Reyad Alhamud has gotten to know Paul Waldner since coming to Canada. 'When I come to here, I have another family — it's Paul and Green Acres and all the people who've helped me here,' says Alhamud. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

He decided he wanted to get involved in sponsoring a family, but wasn't sure how his colony would react to the idea of sponsoring a family of Muslim refugees.

"I went home, talked to my dad, who was minister and president of Green Acres Colony, and his initial comment really convinced me," said Waldner.

"He said, 'The Hutterites were refugees at one point as well. If it wasn't for people helping them, we wouldn't be here.'"

Hutterites are an Anabaptist branch that originated in Europe, but most fled to North America in the 19th century, many settling in Western Canada. They live communally in faith-based colonies.

'You can do anything. This is Canada'

So Paul worked with the Mennonite Central Committee to put in the paperwork with the federal government, and applied to bring a family from Syria to Canada.

Alhamud and his family flew into Winnipeg on Feb. 8, 2016. They had already fled Syria, and were living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Alhamud said he was very nervous to meet the family who sponsored him but once he saw they, too, had a dress code, he relaxed a little.

Reyad Alhamud shows a homemade calendar in his family's apartment in Brandon, Man. The project is filled with photos of special moments between his family and members of the Green Acres Hutterite colony. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

"I miss my family and my country, but when I come to here, I have another family — it's Paul and Green Acres and all the people who've helped me here," said Alhamud.

"They told me, 'It's your family now here, you can do anything. This is Canada. If you need any help, we're ready for you.'"

Finding similarities in different cultures

Alhamud and his family initially moved into a house in Wawanesa that Waldner had prepared for them. While the two families got along from the start, Waldner said some colony members had developed negative stereotypes about Muslims and terrorism, and weren't welcoming to the new family.

"People would say, 'How could you bring those people here?' But as time went by, there were less of those types of questions," said Waldner.

That's because over time, Waldner and Alhamud focused on the similarities they found in their religions. They both pray several times a day, hold celebrations and observe holidays, and have dedicated buildings for worship — churches and mosques.

​"Many Hutterites ask me when will I convert them to Christianity, and I keep saying to them, 'I haven't seen anything that's not Christian,'" said Waldner.

"The specific things in religion are different … but the celebrating and the ceremonies that we perform are similar, just for different reasons."

Bringing family together

Alhamud and his family have now moved to an apartment in Brandon. He's taking English and math classes and hopes to take construction courses to find work.

While they don't get to see each other as often as they used to, the two families make an effort to spend time together. They just held a big party in February to celebrate their two-year anniversary.

And the Alhamud family is growing in Canada. Shortly after they arrived in 2016, a separate church in western Manitoba sponsored one of Alhamoud's brothers to come to the Brandon area.

And now, Waldner is working with the Mennonite Central Committee to bring over more family. Alhamud's other brother is waiting in a refugee camp in Lebanon with his wife and five children. The colony is working to privately sponsor them as well.

"Yes, it's very nice, my brother is coming," said Alhamud. "It will mean all the family is closer together. It's good."

Urban Myths is a CBC series that explores Manitoba communities and their sometimes surprising stories.

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