Iraqi family gets back to a normal Christmas

  • December 22, 2010
dina fatohiMISSISSAUGA, ONT. - It will likely not be a silent night at the Fatohi household this Christmas, but it is expected to be a memorable one.

A year after coming to Canada to flee persecution in Iraq, Dina and Fawaz Fatohi, and St. Dominic’s parish which sponsored them, are expecting an early Christmas present: the birth of the family’s first son, who will be named David.

Less than two weeks before the expected Dec. 21 delivery, Dina recalled past Christmases in Baghdad before and after the wars and spoke about the family’s first year in Canada at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church.

The 33-year-old expectant mother said she cherishes the freedom to attend midnight Mass and practise her faith in Canada without the threat of bombs and bullets.

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christmas for the family was like that in other Christian homes in the neighbourhood.

The family attended midnight Mass and spent time with relatives and friends, including preparing a special Iraqi chicken dish called “coba.”

But after the invasion, the Fatohis and other Christian families were afraid to go to church on Christmas. Instead, they celebrated and prayed at home. Dina’s daughter, Dana, could no longer play in the nearby park because the threat of violence scared the children away. Dina also feared walking alone to the nearby grocery store.

About half of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled their homeland since the 2003 invasion due to persecution that has targeted Christians. This violence is threatening one of the world’s oldest Christian communities which dates back 2,000 years, including the Chaldean Assyrians (Eastern-rite Catholics who are in communion with the Catholic Church), the Syrian Catholics and Armenian Catholics, and Assyrians who run an independent church.

Recently, one of the most disturbing anti-Christian attacks occurred during an Oct. 31 Mass at a Baghdad church when gunmen killed 58 people in a more than four-hour siege.

In recent years, Iraqi Christian families have taken refuge in Jordan, Syria, Europe, the United States and Canada.

In Toronto, Archbishop Thomas Collins has made refugee sponsorship a priority. Soon after being named archbishop, Collins established an Office for Refugees. Last year, the archbishop encouraged parishes and religious communities to double their sponsorships of Iraqi Christians.

And in August, Collins announced he would personally sponsor a family.

The Fatohi family fled its home in Baghdad in 2007 after Fawaz, 38, who worked for a Turkish oil company, received an envelope containing a knife and an anonymous note saying,“If you don’t leave Iraq, you will be killed.”

Immediately, the family packed up what belongings they could in a truck and drove to neighbouring Syria. They eventually settled in one of the refugee camps there.

But life in the camps was difficult: there were no jobs and it was not really the place for a young family, so Dina and Fawaz sought refuge in Canada. On Nov. 25, 2009, the family and Fawaz’s parents came to Canada and settled in Mississauga.

During their first Canadian Christmas, Dina, Fawaz and Dana resumed the tradition of attending midnight Mass, this time at St. Dominic’s Church. Afterwards, Beverly Carpenter of the parish’s resettlement committee accompanied the family to St. Joseph Syriac Catholic Church where they attended a Mass in Arabic and reunited with many friends from Baghdad.

After their first year in Canada, Dina said the family has adjusted to its new life, with her daughter excelling at reading, and enthusiastic about going to school to see her friends and playing in the park.

Meanwhile, Dina is continuing with English classes and Fawaz is working at a chip factory (when The Register first interviewed the Fatohi family last April, Fawaz was working at a pizza factory).

The adjustment wouldn’t have been as smooth, Dina adds, if it were not for the help of generous St. Dominic’s parishioners. Although the parish’s official support of the family only lasts for a year, the bond between them remains.

From helping the family prepare for Baptism to parishioners throwing a baby shower in the parish basement and giving heartfelt gifts like an antique rocking chair, the close bond between the family and the parish is unmistakable, to the point where Dina refers to Carpenter as her “second mother.”

“Mom Beverly,” as Dina affectionately calls Carpenter, said it is a collective parish effort that has helped the family get through the challenges of its first year.

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