How an online connection gave one refugee family a head start on a new life
'We felt like outcasts in Lebanon'
In April 2021, the Al Taha family was having a difficult time after nearly a decade spent in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Akyla Al Fares Taha, her husband and their five children fled Syria in 2012. In 2020, Al Fares Taha's husband was killed suddenly.
That's why a flurry of encouraging WhatsApp messages from children halfway around the world had such an impact.
"We felt like outcasts in Lebanon," said Al Fares Taha, explaining why the connection with youth in Ottawa made such a difference to her kids.
Al Fares Taha said watching her sons laugh and exchange dance videos with Canadian children helped carry the family through a traumatic time.
They were living in a makeshift home, awaiting refugee sponsorship to Canada when the father, Kheder Al Fares Taha, was killed — electrocuted in front of the family while doing repairs.
A teacher in Ottawa heard about the tragedy and decided to do something. Lindsay Barr began organizing online pen pal exchanges over Zoom between elementary students in her World-Changing Kids leadership program and Hussein Al Taha, 13, and Mohammed Al Taha, 12.
"I always offer an action after we learn about an issue, because kids can get anxious or depressed by the heaviness of the news," said Barr, whose program is about teaching children to engage in social issues.
Over the next year, the Al Taha brothers began sending TikTok-style dance videos back and forth with the World-Changing Kids in Ottawa.
"We learned about everything going on with them," said 11-year-old Kaaya Kaur Sadana, in Ottawa. "Their house was not very safe. No one should have a house that's unsafe or be in that position."
WATCH | Ottawa elementary school children and Syrian Al Taha brothers exchange dance videos across the world
'Make a change'
While a budding international friendship formed between the children, Barr reached out to faith-based youth groups, like Temple Israel and the Mosque of Mercy to get more teens involved.
Peter Gillies, a member of Grace United Church in Chelsea, Que., was delighted to see different communities come together to help. The church started sponsoring the family in late 2018 and raised $30,000 while working to arrange for them to safely come to Canada.
"Churchgoers tend to be older people, certainly in the Christian community, but I see a vibrant youth group here," said Gillies, who added how touched the church congregation was to see so many young people of different faiths working together.
The World-Changing Kids, Temple Israel youth group and youth from the Mosque of Mercy worked together to set up an apartment for the Al Taha family.
"It's super nice to just be able to put religion aside and help out some people and just do something nice for the world and make a change," said Ari Good, who is part of Temple Israel's youth group, now connected with the Al Taha family.
Finally after months of waiting, a group of 35 people, including the youth groups met together at the Masjid ar-Rahmah mosque to welcome the Al Taha family.
Lilia Schnarr,10, of World-Changing Kids, was elated to meet the Syrian boys in person. "I saw my brother high-five them and say a word in Arabic," said Schnarr.
"I love seeing all these teens from all these different backgrounds together wanting to help welcome a family," said Rabbi Dara Lithwick.
"We are building a relationship. It took us some time, but I think this is our future."
Echoing Lithwick's sentiments, 16-year-old Maryam Abdullahi highlighted the feeling of unity.
"We're all here together as one community."
While World-Changing Kids is currently helping the Syrian family, they have plans to welcome Afghan and Ukrainian families in the future.
And in the meantime, 11-year-old Isla Wood of the World-Changing Kids has some advice to the greater Ottawa community about working with refugees: "Go support them. Welcome them. And don't be a meanie."