How an online connection gave one refugee family a head start on a new life

Ottawa elementary school children shared dance videos with Syrian refugee children as they waited to come to Canada. After months of online correspondence they all met in person at the Mosque of Mercy in June.

'We felt like outcasts in Lebanon'

Left to right: Hussein, Mohammed, and Hosni Al Taha. The brothers came to Ottawa with their mother in May 2022 after living in a refugee camp in Lebanon for the past 10 years. (Ash Abraham/CBC )

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. 

Hussein, Hosni and Mohammed with their mother Akyla Al Fares Taha. The family connected with youth in Ottawa in 2021. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

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.

Hussein, left, and Mohammed Al Taha, right, and Ottawa-based elementary students took part in a virtual video dance pen pal exchange, and met in person at the Mosque of Mercy. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

"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

Ottawa youth help cheer up Syrian refugees through TikTok dances

7 days ago
Duration 1:38
Watch Ottawa elementary school children and Syrian Al Taha brothers exchange dance videos across the world, and forge a friendship. After months of online correspondence they all met in person at the Mosque of Mercy in June.

'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.

Temple Israel youth with Rabbi Dara Lithwick participated in welcoming the Al Taha family to Ottawa. (Ash Abraham/CBC )

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. 

Fatima Jan, left, and Maryam Abdullahi, right, were ambassadors for the Mosque of Mercy, welcoming all 35 participants inside for a tour. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

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."

Members of the Mosque of Mercy, Temple Israel, World-Changing Kids and Grace United Church welcomed the Al Taha family to Ottawa. (Ash Abraham/CBC )

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."

After months of video exchanges, a group of Ottawa and Quebec residents welcomed the Al Taha family to the region. (Ash Abraham/CBC)


Ash Abraham

CBC Ottawa Cross-Platform Producer and Reporter

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