Syrian family to move into converted convent in St. Andrews

An old convent in rural St. Andrews, N.S., had been for sale for more than a year when the Sisters of St. Martha concluded that fate or something more powerful was telling them the big, empty home had a higher purpose.

Tri-Heart Society volunteers preparing for arrival of privately-sponsored Syrian family

A seven-room convent in St. Andrews, N.S., has been cleaned up and stocked with supplies and is accepting donated furniture. (Michael MacDonald/The Canadian Press)

The old convent in rural St. Andrews, N.S., had been for sale for more than a year when the Sisters of St. Martha concluded that fate or something more powerful was telling them the big, empty home had a higher purpose.

In September, within a few weeks of Pope Francis urging more parishes to take in Syrian refugees, the nuns had turned their attention to making the house available when a call came from a local group thinking the same thing.

"Maybe it wasn't meant to be sold," says Sister Brendalee Boisvert, the order's congregation leader. "Maybe this was always in the mind and heart of the Holy Spirit — that we would always have a family enjoy this home that we enjoyed for 87 years."

With the help of the religious order, volunteers with the Tri-Heart Society are now preparing for the arrival of a privately-sponsored Syrian family of six who have been living in a camp in Lebanon.

They're going to come carrying what it feels like to be displaced, but this community is ready.- Sister Brendalee Boisvert

The volunteers have been told the family's 43-year-old father is an electrician and welder, and his 39-year-old wife has secretarial skills. They have three sons — ages 16, 13 and six — and an eight-year-old daughter.

Little else is known about the family, except that they speak Arabic and the eldest son speaks some English. 

Tri-Heart has raised more than $30,000 for living expenses. As well, the seven-room convent has been cleaned up, stocked with supplies and is accepting donated furniture.

Easing the transition to rural life

A cozy living room with a flat-screen TV has replaced a small chapel. School supplies sit in neat piles on a small desk in an upper bedroom. And when the call went out last week for a kitchen table and chairs, a donated set showed up the next morning. 

While there's no question the nuns and volunteers have the best interests of the refugees at heart, the question remains: is a quiet, rural corner of eastern Nova Scotia an appropriate place to settle a family from a war zone?

Boisvert says she knows there will be challenges. 

"They're going to come carrying what it feels like to be displaced, but this community is ready."

Harry Daemen, a retired engineer and chairman of Tri-Heart, says the group has consulted with three local schools to ensure they are ready for their new students. As well, several Arabic-speaking residents have come forward to help, including some professors at St. Francis Xavier University in nearby Antigonish.

And there's more to the community than dairy farms and cornfields, says Daemen.

"On any given Friday night, the community hall is full, the curling rink, too, and the elementary school (next to the convent) is always having a meetings," he says. "It's not a little village that doesn't have things happening."

More importantly, St. Andrews — population 1,100 — has a well-earned reputation for welcoming newcomers.

History of helping

Daemen was a toddler when he and his family first arrived in the area as part of a wave of Dutch immigrants looking for farm land after the Second World War.

"Somebody had to sponsor you for a year," he says, noting a parallel with the Syrian family.

"It is a community that has been welcoming people ever since the first Scots set foot in St. Andrews (in the early 1800s). And that will continue."

MaryAnn Forbes, another member of Tri-Heart and also a Dutch immigrant, recalls how she helped a family of Vietnamese boat people who were resettled near her family's farm in the early 1980s.

The family used only the lower floor of their donated home when they first arrived, she says, adding, "They didn't feel free to use it all until they were told."

Daemen says the residents of St. Andrews are keen to help the Syrian family adapt, but there's more to what is happening at the convent than a simple act of charity. 

"The immigration cycles of the past have kept us healthy and renewed," he says."We need an injection of new cultures, people and new thoughts."

Nova Scotia has offered to settle up to 1,500 refugees but it's unclear when they will start arriving. To date, more than 100 groups have raised money, including 51 in Halifax alone.

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