Ottawa man bringing dozens of Syrian relatives to the city

An Ottawa man who came from Syria five years ago is now sponsoring his brother and sister and their families as well as several other Syrian refugee families from his village.

4 Syrian refugee families and counting now call Ottawa home

Shadi Al Khalil, centre, with 19 fellow Syrian refugees he helped bring to Ottawa. (Paul Soucie)

As thousands of Syrian refugees prepare to board a plane for Canada some will be less nervous than others. That's because they have a friend or relative already here.

In Ottawa, one of those "favourite uncles" is Shadi Al Khalil who has helped bring four Syrian families here in the past couple of years. 

There are another six families on the way soon, and 15 others expected to come in 2016.  

"It's really amazing," Al Khalil said. "To think about having many people from your country and city and all of them, they know you and you know them."

An accountant by training, Al Khalil, 35, came here from Syria himself five years ago to learn English and stayed after the civil war broke out in his homeland. He was eventually granted refugee status.

Al Khalil was unable to find work in his field and now works the overnight shift at a store while spending all his spare money and dozens of hours each week preparing the paperwork for other Syrians who want to come to Canada.  

Lessons learned from fellow volunteers

Now I am tireless. I want to help others and others as much as I can.- Shadi Al Khalil

Some of the people Al Khalil is sponsoring are family members, including his sister and brother and their families, and others are friends from his village.

Al Khalil is also working with Ottawa's Catholic Centre for Immigrants and local sponsorship groups to bring in refugees with whom, he has no direct connection. 

Al Khalil credits the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Bells Corners, that sponsored his sister and her family, with inspiring him to do more.

He says their fundraising efforts on behalf of his family and endless hours volunteering taught him an important lesson — that it's not all about family.

"Now I am tireless. I want to help others and others as much as I can." 

A 'win win win situation'

People who work with refugees call it the 'echo effect.'

One person from a conflict zone arrives, and settles here then he or she contacts family and friends, sells them on the prosperity and safety of Canada and convinces them to come. Then those people sponsor others in turn.

Don Smith is the chair of the refugee sponsorship committee with the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. (CBC)
Soon dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people, have relocated to Ottawa all thanks to that first immigrant.  

Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group for the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, calls it a "win win win situation."  

He says the immigrant wins because his family is now nearby and he no longer has to worry about them. The family members win because they have someone here who can help with translation and the transition to life in Canada. 

Echo effect helps with integration

Smith said Canadian society also wins "because people integrate better as a family, they work together, they support each other."

Al Khalil said his only frustration is that he has not been able to bring his elderly mother to Ottawa who is still in Daraa, a city in the middle of the conflict in southern Syria. 

She wants to come to Canada on a tourist visa but has been denied entry and Canadian authorities have told Al Khalil he does not make enough money to sponsor her visit.

Shadi Al Khalil came to Ottawa five years ago to learn English and ended up staying. (CBC)
Al Khalil volunteers so much time helping other Syrian families, he has had no time to have a relationship or start a family of his own. 

But he also realizes he has all the family here he could ever want and he's looking forward to watching his nieces and nephews grow up in Ottawa.

"I feel satisfied and happy."

Al Khalil came to Ottawa from Syria five years ago to learn English and he ended up staying. Now he is sponsoring Syrian refugees to come here. 0:32