Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies (top left) and her family were sponsored by Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch, Alta., when they escaped Vietnam in 1979. She has paid forward their favour some 40 years later by sponsoring the Alshablis, a Syrian refugee family. Her story of generosity will be highlighted in a film to be released by the UN this fall. Photo by Thandiwe Konguavi

From one refugee generation to another

By  Thandiwe Konguavi, Catholic Register Special
  • September 2, 2017

EDMONTON - Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies will never forget the January day she saw the Alshablis, a family fleeing war in Syria, walk through the doors of Edmonton International Airport.

Forty years ago, a group of sponsors — six families and a priest from Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch, 25 km west of Edmonton— had met five-year-old Tran-Davies as she walked through those same doors as a refugee from Vietnam. A Canadian girl handed her a doll.

“That doll to me symbolized the kindness and compassion of Canadians, and to this day I hold on to that doll,” said Tran-Davies.

When the Alshablis stepped off the plane in 2016, Tran-Davies, the former refugee turned sponsor, was part of a group giving toys to Alaa and Somaya Alshabli’s children, Retaj, Rimas and Mustafa.

An upcoming film produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will feature Tran-Davies’ remarkable story of paying it forward.

For the film, the UNHCR sought out a Vietnam War refugee family that has sponsored Syrian refugees today.

“It’s quite a complex story but we did find it, and it was in Edmonton,” said Kathryn Porteous, co-manager of the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, a prize recognizing humanitarian heroes, from her office in Geneva.

More than 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada as of Jan. 29, 2017, according to a Government of Canada report.

Tran-Davies’ journey to becoming a sponsor starts with her own refugee story. At four years old, Tran-Davies, her widowed mother and five siblings boarded the bottom of a small, rickety fishing vessel packed with 300 people, fleeing the suffering of post-war Vietnam.

“It was hard for everyone on the boat because of the waves thrashing on the boat,” she recalls. “A lot of people became nauseous and sickly because of it and so a lot of people were throwing up. I just remember how suffocating it was and the feeling of nausea and sickness.”

Her family was lucky to make it to a Malaysian refugee camp alive.

For eight long months, her mother, Huong Tran, prayed every day that a country would sponsor her large family.

“For a while mom felt nobody wanted us, but one day we got news that Canada wanted us.”

The family arrived in 1979.

Dubbed the Vietnamese Boat People, more than two million people fled the war-torn country in the 1970s. Canada accepted more than 100,000 of these refugees. The heroic effort saw the people of Canada become the first whole country to be awarded the Nansen Refugee Award in 1986.

“Of course we heard about the Vietnamese refugees and the Boat People, and when you heard the reports you were just devastated,” said Leona Heuver, one of the original sponsors of the Tran family.

Heuver was part of the group led by Oblate Fr. Gilles Gauthier, who banded together in search of a family to sponsor.

Tran, a single mother with six children, only skilled as a seamstress, fit the bill.

“Many other nations may feel that we would be a burden to their country, to their community, but Fr. Gauthier and our other sponsors specifically wanted us because they knew that we would have not had a chance at a better life otherwise,” said Tran-Davies, now a physician in Calmar, Alta.

“It was not money they gave us, it was not anything other than love. It opened a whole new world, a whole new life for us, and so I feel humbled to be in a situation now where I can finally be able to pay forward all the kindness and generosity that was given to us.”

Last year, Somaya and Alaa Alshabli welcomed their youngest child, Janna, surrounded by friends in their new home in Edmonton. Their older children were born in refugee camps in Jordan.

“It was difficult to live there,” said Somaya, speaking in Arabic through a translator. “We wanted a dignified life.”

Somaya treasures the doll given to her daughter by Tran-Davies when they arrived in Canada.

“We try not to play with it too much because we want, when our children grow up, to tell them the story about this doll,” said Somaya. “We’ll tell them the truth — that this doll was given to us by very kind people with kind hearts who helped us in a difficult time to be what we will be then.”

Parishes in the Archdiocese of Edmonton have sponsored 546 Syrian refugees since 2014, said Paulette Johnson, refugee sponsorship coordinator for the archdiocese.

Sponsoring a family, even with a large group, is a huge undertaking, said Tran-Davies.

She is still grateful for all the work her own sponsors put in to settle her family when they arrived in 1979 — like taking her and her siblings to school, to the dentist’s office and medical appointments.

“I had great role models, so there were standards in my mind to guide me in how I should care for these refugees,” said Tran-Davies. “And so when Somaya and Alaa came, I did my best and did not do it alone.”

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