Welcoming the Wisos
How a small committee brought a community together
By Sue Tiffin
Published by Oct. 24, 2017
Sean Pennylegion remembers the day in September last year that he and fellow members of the Haliburton Refugee Sponsorship Committee (HRSC) waited at Toronto’s Pearson airport for the Wiso family to arrive.
The committee had spent more than a year raising funds, organizing documents and arranging accommodation for the Syrian family to immigrate to Canada from Lebanon, and no one – not the committee members, not the Wisos – knew what to expect when their dreams came to fruition.
“Just to think about the circumstances,” he said. “They got on a plane in Lebanon, and they got off umpteen hours later. They went through about four hours of processing through the federal government. Then they walked through the double doors to four people standing there with a sign saying, ‘Welcome Wisos.’ We don’t know them, they don’t know us, their lives have just gone through a blender...”
Together with fellow committee member Anne Moore, who said any food she handed to the family after the flight just disappeared in gulps, Pennylegion reflects about that first incredibly silent car ride bringing the Wisos home to Haliburton.
“We get north of Hwy 7, and it’s rocks and trees and lakes, which is what so [many] of us come here for,” he said. “But I’m thinking this in the car. They’re seeing no civilization. They’re seeing nothing for two hours. We stopped part way at an ONroute but none of them wanted to get out. There was not a sound from anybody. It was dead quiet in the van. There was no chitchat.”
It’s hard now for Pennylegion to get through his thoughts, because he is often interrupted as Bayan or Rihab come to sit on the church pew next to him, or Hozayfa approaches to joke with him and swat at his older sister. In a jovial way, Pennylegion likens the noisy situation to Grand Central Station.
It’s a clear reflection of how the situation has changed in a year, and how the Wiso family, fleeing brutal civil war in their home of Syria and harsh conditions in Lebanon has embraced the community and been encircled with support in return.
Pennylegion doesn’t hesitate to correct grammar, hug and tease the teenagers or instruct six-year-old Ghadir to pick up a cookie likely dropped by her little sister, Nasime. He calls after Faysal, reminding him he’s meeting him after school on Tuesday to introduce him to his hockey coach and show him how to put on his gear as the boy hightails it up the stairs at St. George’s Anglican Church in Haliburton, where a celebration is honouring the one-year anniversary of the Wisos’ arrival in the community.
“They’re not in transition in Haliburton,” said Pennylegion. “They might have been at some point. They saw Lindsay and Peterborough and Toronto and Ottawa where you can be seduced by the shiny objects. There are communities elsewhere that have Syrian communities in them. There’s no Syrian community here, they are the Syrian community. There’s something compelling about being around people who speak your language and understand what you’re talking about...but there’s some real benefits to being in a community where we don’t have that because this allows everybody to just immerse.”
The children of Yousef and Ghiyab – ranging in age now from two to 20 – are completely immersed in life here, as students at Stuart Baker and J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary schools, Hal High and the Leonard Salvatori Alternate Education Centre, and as part-time workers in jobs at McKeck’s, Into the Blue Bakery, Edilicious and Oakview Lodge. Hasan is staying in school another year to prepare for college. Rihab said she loves working as a roadie for local band Fifth Business, and she plans to be a police officer one day. Bayan, who once relied on a translator for interviews, now speaks English with confidence and good humour.
“The kids are remarkably dug in,” said Pennylegion. “They’re working. They play hockey. They all love school. They are enamoured by the teachers. They have friends. They’re doing all the things that kids here do – they’re on skateboards and scooters and all that stuff.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Members of the committee acknowledge there have naturally been challenges along the way, of course, some sleepless nights and moments that became learning experiences.
“We went through a very bad time when the family was watching television and seeing all the bombing that was happening in Syria during the wintertime,” said Chris Lynd, committee chair. “It was very hard for the family, and in return it became very hard on us. We would go in and they would be crying and you kind of take that on.”
Lynd tells a story of when Yousef was taken to the hospital for a potential medical concern, and she had to break the news to Ghiyab, his wife.
“The look on her face was a look I will never, ever forget, of terror,” said Lynd. “Then she just dissolved on the floor, because she thought the family had become so much trouble and that they were going to be sent back to Syria.”
“One of the things we have not run into here, are any kind of adverse comments from the community,” said Pennylegion. “Not that I should suggest we would, but this has been a fairly dramatic thing to happen in this community and people have been welcoming.”
Pennylegion said when the family first arrived – the committee asked the community to hold back on kind gestures and generosity until the Wisos could get settled – they quickly became well-known in Haliburton village.
“It was like travelling with the Stones because people would slam on the brakes in the middle of the road, jump out of the car and say, ‘welcome to Canada,’” said Pennylegion. “And what people were getting on the other end in return, before [the family] knew anything else was, ‘thank you.’”
The Wiso family is noticeably gracious. At the celebration, held on Oct. 14, the older Wiso family members thank everyone they see, acknowledging each visitor by first name. They are grateful for kind words and even small gestures and speak often of their appreciation for their new home and the committee members who rallied the community to make it happen.
“It didn’t surprise me, I knew people would do it, I knew people would say yes, I knew there were people that thought like us,” said Lynd. “I would watch those things on television, and I said to my husband, we have to do something. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we have to do something. If we can help one family, we’re in.”
David Barker, HRSC spokesperson, spoke to the quick outpouring of support from the community when the HRSC gathered to culminate their plans. Almost 100 people gathered to learn more when the idea was first launched in 2015, and a radio interview generated interest faster than anticipated.
“As soon as I was off the air, people called to make a donation,” he said. “[The Wisos have] enriched us much more than we’ve enriched them, and they’ve added a dynamic to our community.”
Some members of the committee say that helping to bring the Wiso family away from war is one of the most important things they’ve done in their lifetime.
“It’s been a neat ride,” said Pennylegion. “There have been times in the kitchen, with 11 people in the family, trying to explain the telephone, and you think, you could not buy this experience. You could not go out and purchase this opportunity.”
“We will never forget it, it’s ingrained in us,” said Lynd, commiserating with Pennylegion about the adventure the past year has been, working so intimately with another family which at times consumed their every spare moment. “And our partners have lived it right alongside us.”
Pennylegion laughs to think of that first ride, and his worry about the family’s response to living in a rural spot. Many of the Wiso family members have spent every available moment at events in Head Lake Park, across the road from their home at the St. George Anglican Church rectory.
“We live where people want to go,” he said.
Sept. 19 marked the family’s one year anniversary in Canada.
“Thank you for our new life and for our new future,” Hasan tells a group of community members at the anniversary celebration. “You guys have saved my life, and my future.”
Later, sitting in the living room of the house prepared for the family by the committee (“I can’t think of another house in the county that would fit 11 people comfortably,” said Pennylegion), Hasan shows off his artwork on the wall and also the chicken cooking in the oven.
“We were so happy,” he said. “We never once thought we would get this house, a new life or back to school or get another language.”
He described Aleppo, the family’s hometown, as being filled with heritage before a civil war ravaged the area, destroying much of it to rubble.
“It’s a beautiful city,” he said, but barely pauses before he corrects himself: “Was.”
He speaks of the history of Aleppo’s Citadel, one of the world’s oldest buildings, and how tourists once visited. In 2010, fighting started and it worsened quickly.
Hasan searches for the words to describe what he saw when he arrived at school one day in 2011, and uses his phone’s translator to search. When he holds it up, the message is clear – “they will blow up schools.”
Hasan said he and his brothers and sisters had to leave school because his family was scared, and they moved. They no longer worked, and the war was “coming strong.”
“We had a very bad life there – it was the first time I saw people, how they die,” he said, telling a story of when he, at 13, saw a man shot and killed in the streets. “You cannot run by yourself. You have to run with 20 people, or 10. You have to run in a zig zag. Because the sniper, he can get you if you run straight. We were running, me and my dad, and a couple of people. We had to get food. I saw a man fall on the ground. I was really scared.” Hasan discussed his likely future with his mother.
“I said, when I am 18 years old, I have to go and fight with the government. They will give me a gun, a machine gun, and I have to kill the people. Like, who I see, I have to kill. I cannot do that. When I was 14 years old, I told my mom I had to leave Syria and go somewhere else.”
Hasan went with his older cousin to Lebanon, where he worked in construction. He said he couldn’t buy a T-shirt, instead sending his earnings home to support his family to bring them to Lebanon as well.
“It was so hard,” he said. “It was so hard, sometimes I was crying.”
It was stressful for his little brother, Mohammed, too, who was used to sleeping alongside Hasan.
“My mom, she called me and she was crying. She said, your brother cannot sleep. He is sad because you are away.”
Soon his family was alongside him too, but living in Lebanon was not easy for the Wisos, who recount horrible mistreatment during their time there before they were able to come to Canada through the work of the HRSC and Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA).
“I still miss Syria, but I’ve found a good life here, than there,” he said.
Hasan said he might visit, but has no plans to return to live in Syria.
“You know, all the people we know, they’re gone,” he says. “I’m sure of it, they’re gone.”
Next door at the celebration, committee members and residents from the community mingle with the Wiso family as though they’ve known each other for years. Bayan and Rihab hand carnations out, hugging friendly mentors with big smiles.
Signs that the community has taken this family under their wings are prevalent. A garden next to the family home was nurtured by Bill Gliddon before the family arrived. Some of the youngest Wiso kids are wearing dresses shared with them by Jack and Pat Brezina’s grandchild.
Pat tells Bayan she made the Rice Krispie squares at the party with marshmallows made with fish-based gelatin rather than pork-based gelatin to respect the family’s dietary needs. Ghadir is complimented often on the boots Wendy Bateman gave her. And it’s clear the family is adopting some local traditions into their own lives. Photos of the family with Santa hang in the living room, and Hasan sports a haircut by Mark Christiano. Many in the family no longer use a translator, and Bayan was quick to shoo away help from Lynd during her speech.
“My family loves Canada,” she read from a speech that thanked committee members for their guidance, teachers at their schools, hosts to area events and attractions and employers who hired the family to work. “It is beautiful and the people are so kind. Syria was a wonderful place to live before the war but then it got too dangerous. We have many family still in Syria and we miss them but we are thankful to be in Canada now with all of you.”
Pennylegion notes that although the formal one-year contract with the committee is complete, the Wisos know they have lifelong friends to help them live life in Canada.
“Now they build on what’s here already,” he said. “Everyone’s going to school. Everybody who could work has worked. Now, they’ll continue on.”
Gliddon is teary-eyed, interacting with family members and listening attentively to speeches.
“I’m touched,” he said. He points out the decorations in the room, balloons that he said were the Wiso girls’ idea.
“They’re such a lovely family, too,” he said. “Not that we wouldn’t have welcomed anybody, but they’re just such a lovely family.”