Residents in small Quebec town sponsoring Syrian refugee family

Although the Apkarians have never stepped foot in Sutton, Que., they are among the most popular and discussed people in the bucolic resort town of 4,000 residents.

Community opens bank account, prepares new home and promises to teach family both languages

Rafi Allaouirdian, left, his daughter, Amanda, and uncle Vache Maranian walk down a street in Sutton, Quebec. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Although the Apkarians have never stepped foot in Sutton, Que., they are among the most popular and discussed people in the bucolic resort town of 4,000 residents.

A bank account has been opened on their behalf, a home is being prepared and an organic farmer has already promised them free, fresh fruits and vegetables for one year.

"People have been asking me, 'When are they coming?' They are all excited," said Lu Emanuel, the Sutton resident who started the project to have the town sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

The Apkarians will be the first Syrian refugees in Sutton, Emanuel said. And while Hay Doun, a Montreal-based Armenian community group, is backing the application, the family is effectively being sponsored by the entire town.

"People in the community are by and large very happy and excited we are doing this," Emanuel said.

Emanuel first contacted Rafi Allaouirdian, an Armenian shoemaker from Lebanon who's been living in Sutton for several years.

"My ex-wife is a Syrian-Armenian," said Allaouirdian. "We know a lot of people who are refugees and living all over the world. I said maybe I could find a family to sponsor. And that's when the Apkarians came into the picture."

People have already promised to volunteer to help the family learn English and French. (Ryan Remiorz/ The Canadian Press)

The couple and their three children, aged between 15 and 20, are in Lebanon waiting for the Canadian government to give them a medical examination. The mother is Allaouirdian's sister-in-law.

"If they are called for the medical then it's an automatic Yes (to come to Canada)," he said. "From what I understand there is no 'No,' it's always 'Yes."'

When the Apkarians will arrive is unclear, however, as they wind their way through Canada's refugee-settling processing system.

People lend a helping hand

Most of the thousands of refugees Quebec has agreed to accept since last year have settled in big cities, notably Montreal, where there are schools and other services aimed at helping them integrate.

That's not the case in Sutton, where Lu said the closest services dedicated to refugees are a 45-minute drive away in Granby.

Although they will be far from their Syrian hometown of Aleppo, the Apkarians won't be alone.

Roughly 90 people have donated money, supplies or time in order to help the family until they are self-sufficient.

A group of residents recently held a fundraising concert attended by roughly 100 people in order to collect money for the Apkarians and other events are planned.

People have already promised to volunteer to help the family learn English and French and a registered nurse has pledged to assist them with navigating the health-care system.

Lu added that a professional psychologist has volunteered time to help family members deal with any residual trauma associated with having to leave a city in Syria that has seen some of the worst fighting in the civil war.

Additionally, the Apkarians have two family members already in Sutton.

'Thank you very much'

Ottawa initially wanted to cap the number of privately sponsored refugees coming to Canada but Immigration Minister John McCallum reversed course in March.

He said the applications for about 10,000 Syrians that had been submitted by March 31 will be processed in the hopes of getting the refugees to Canada by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

Immigration Minister John McCallum reversed the decision to cap the number of privately sponsored refugees coming to Canada (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Vache Maranian, 47, Allaouirdian's Syrian brother-in-law, was fast-tracked to Canada and arrived in mid-April.

He drove to Sutton from Montreal to attend the benefit concert and to say hello to Allaouirdian and his son.

In broken English, he said, "Thank you very much. To the government of Canada, thank you very much for everything."