Photo by Michael Swan.

Toronto family’s door is always open to refugees

By 
  • December 22, 2015

TORONTO - A 13-hour flight to Toronto was nothing after three years spent living as refugees in Amman, Jordan, as an Armenian Orthodox family from Aleppo, Syria, launched its Canadian odyssey.

The family’s first day on Canadian soil consisted of hugs, coffee, sandwiches and the bustle of half-a-dozen members of the Church of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin refugee sponsorship committee hauling their two suitcases and a couple of small bags upstairs to their temporary bedrooms.

For the youngest, there was the delight of meeting the first of three cats resident in their temporary home. For the parents there were just too many people to thank.

The couple were nervous about allowing their names to be printed in the paper, but were happy to have their picture taken for The Catholic Register.

They will spend their first two weeks in Canada staying with Eileen and Bob Gaspirc, who have become old hands in the business of hosting and helping refugees. The Gaspircs have now opened their home to four separate refugee families — families who all remain a part of their lives. In 1992 there was a Polish family, all of whom were profoundly deaf and arrived in Canada with just one suitcase. Twenty-nine years later the Polish tool and die maker who heads that family is just months away from paying off his mortgage.

The Poles were followed by a Vietnamese family who have made a successful life in Toronto.

Most recent were Iraqi Christian refugees who came to the Gaspirc family home from life as refugees in Damascus in 2012. The two brothers who are the breadwinners in that family have built a successful business as tiling contractors and recently bought a home in Brampton.

The Gaspircs had yet to decorate their home for Christmas, saving that family ritual for their new refugee family’s children. The Gaspircs will bring over their four grandchildren and then unbox all the balls and ribbons and tinsel.

Eileen Gaspirc has never found her four-bedroom house too small for the parade of people her family has welcomed over the years. There’s always been room for one more bed, one more plate at the table. Welcoming people is woven into the Gaspirc home.

Eileen’s father was an orphan in England after the First World War who was sponsored to Canada at the age of 16. It was in Canada that Eileen’s poor and underfed father discovered the delight of a full belly.

Bob’s parents were displaced persons in Slovenia at the end of the Second World War. His mother never sat down for a meal without saying, “Blessed Canada.”

Suriah Gaspirc looks Somali, but she was born in Canada after her mother immigrated from Mogadishu in 1989, sensing her country’s volatile politics were about to break down into violent chaos. Suriah’s mother sponsored cousins and aunts who found themselves stranded in Saudi Arabia when the violence they all feared erupted in the 1990s.

“It’s not something surprising, to be helping people,” said Suriah.

The oldest of the Gaspirc boys, Michael, has worked as a co-ordinator in the federal government’s Katimavik program, and has put up as many as a dozen of his young charges in the family home for a few days so they could have an experience of Toronto during their year of service and discovery.

Then there was the woman and her three children on the run from her gun-toting Irish Republican Army husband who found refuge with the Gaspirc house. And another woman running from a broken marriage.

The list of house guests is dizzying. The basic impulse is always the same. Someone needs help and what could help more than a warm bed and a few hot meals?

The bedrooms and that initial welcome is always the Gaspirc contribution to the St. Gabriel’s refugee sponsorship committee. This is the second family this version of the St. Gabriel’s committee has welcomed. But the history of refugee sponsorship at St. Gabriel’s goes back to the 1980s and the Vietnamese boat people.

“We’re not particularly short of money, as a parish,” explained Eileen Gaspirc. “The idea, the concept is pretty broadly accepted.”

Working with ORAT, the Archdiocese of Toronto’s refugee sponsorship agency, has made the process that much easier for parishes, said Bob Gaspirc.

“They do a great job,” said the retired City of Toronto manager.

Project Hope, the Archdiocese of Toronto effort to raise $3 million and start 100 refugee sponsorships, has ensured that there will be many more welcomes like the one in the Gaspirc family home on Dec. 21. The campaign brought in $3.1 million and has so far formed committees ready to welcome 89 families.

“It’s heartening to see such good will and co-operation alive and at work in our archdiocese,” said Cardinal Thomas Collins when the campaign wrapped up its financial goal on Dec. 18 — in time for the first Project Hope refugees to arrive Dec. 20.

The St. Garbriel’s parish committee is suddenly rethinking its plans for its new family. The couple have been offered free tuition for their children at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church’s private school in Toronto’s east end. Nothing is more important to an Armenian family than the children, so the family wants to be near the school. Besides, the husband is a cantor in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Eileen Gaspirc, a partner in Weinberg and Gaspirc Chartered Accountants, has not a moment’s doubt that the young goldsmith and carpenter, with his esthetician-hairdresser wife and their two children, will be fabulously successful in Canada.

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