Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins shares a laugh with Eman Jajoo Shakar as she gives him a tour of her new house. The Shakar family, the first Iraqi refugees welcomed by the Archdiocese of Toronto in 2009, now have their own home in Brampton, Ont. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Seven years later, refugees are at home

  • February 7, 2016

BRAMPTON, ONT. - Almost seven years ago the Shakar family fled to Canada as war refugees from Iraq with little beyond the clothes on their backs.

The first refugee family taken in by a sponsorship program initiated by the Archdiocese of Toronto, they had no idea what awaited them in their new homeland. For certain, they did not expect seven years later to be giving a tour to Cardinal Thomas Collins of a brand-new home built especially for them.

“I was surprised when the cardinal came,” said Eman Jajoo Shakar, the family mother. “I didn’t know the cardinal was coming. It’s too much for me. I’m so excited. I thank the Church, the family Church.”

Parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua parish in Brampton have literally built a better life for the Shakar family brick by brick. They worked together with Habitat for Humanity to construct a townhouse and then helped the Shakars move in last month.

Habitat for Humanity is a non profit organization that offers low income families affordable and sustainable homes with a no-inter-est, no-down-payment mortgage. In applying for one of its homes, Habitat for Humanity partners with the family to complete 500 volunteer hours in helping build the home.

During this past summer, vol-unteers from St. Anthony’s parish rolled up their sleeves to help build every wall, floor and countertop in the Shakar’s new home. Every corner of the home is embedded with the loving support of the community that welcomed them seven years ago.

The family celebrated the move with a special house blessing Jan. 21. Eman, smiling from ear to ear, thought it was going to be a small gathering with friends. But Pauline Murphy, head of St. Anthony’s refugee sponsorship committee, surprised the family by inviting Collins, a staunch supporter of opening Canada to refugees who spearheaded efforts to bring Iraqi refugees to Toronto.

“It was a fun day. It was hard, but fun,” said Murphy. “This family came to this country with nothing and to be a part of bringing these blessings for them... It’s the best happy ending.”

Eman showed the cardinal through all three floors of her new home, pointing out how all three of her children now have their own rooms. The family now has two-and-a-half bathrooms, when the family used to share one in a two-bedroom apartment.

Eman said the shrine of Jesus and Mary in the living room is her favourite part of the house. All the religious statues, pictures and artifacts perched on the small ledge in the corner were given to the Shakars by friends in the parish.

“It means a lot for me, a lot,” said Eman. “Until now, the Church has helped me. Whatever I need, they helped me.”

After fleeing their home in Iraq and living in a refugee camp in Jordan for five years, it took a leap of faith to resettle in a strange country where no family members spoke the language. The family arrived at Toronto’s Pearson In-ternational Airport on July 29, 2009, and wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Eman said the entire family was nervous, especially her husband, Majad. Dalya, their oldest daughter, was only 15 years old. Dyna was 13 and their son, Dany, was 10. But, when they turned a corner at the airport terminal and found a crowd of people waiting for them at the gate, their fears were replaced with relief.

“They had like a ‘Welcome to Canada’ (sign) for us. It was so nice,” said Eman.

“For one year, they sponsored us. They did everything.”

During the first year, the committee helped the family every step of the way — filling out the proper documents with the Office of Refugees at the Archdiocese of Toronto, helping the parents find work and taking the family to English classes.

Today, Majad works as a machine operator in Mississauga and Eman works at Tim Hortons. Their two girls are studying early childhood education at Humber College and Dany is in Grade 10 at a Catholic high school.

“It’s a great feeling of joy that one is able to help somebody,” said Wendy Mascarenhas, a member of St. Anthony’s refugee sponsorship committee.

“We were like the (children’s) foster parents... We were there every step of the way.”

Gudy Sato said helping the Shakar family as a committee to apply for a home with Habitat for Humanity has been the most rewarding experience of the seven year journey.

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