Spiritans welcome Iraqi refugees

  • January 15, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - As January comes to a close, five Iraqi children and their father continue to marvel over God’s providence for them after a month of living at the Spiritans ’ newly opened Brottier refugee house in Toronto.

Forced to leave Iraq because of death threats from Shia Muslims more than two years ago, the family separated, leaving the passport-less mother and three youngest children, now aged six, eight and 12, with a brother in another town, while the father and his two teenage sons, now 15 and 17, took refuge in Syria to secure an apartment with financial assistance from the United Nations. Meanwhile, the father continued trying to get the other half of his family passports so they could cross the border.

With tears rimming his eyes, Hassan Shamsi, 65, recounted his story through an interpreter while seated in the Brottier House living room.

“Less than a month (after leaving), they called me from Iraq and ... while doing shopping, there was a bomb and she was killed,” he said, speaking of his wife’s death. “I was told I had to come and get my kids and I (said) I couldn’t even feed the ones I had (with me).”

When they had left Iraq, all they had were the clothes on their backs and the change in their pockets, he said.

Finally able to get his youngest son and two daughters across the border to Syria, the six of them lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, unable to afford a bigger place and barely able to buy groceries.

 With their refugee application about to expire, the family waited anxiously, not knowing what would happen to them.

“I had been through difficulties and awkward situations and I felt there was no solution,” Shamsi’s 17-year-old son Mohammad said through the interpreter. “So I went to the church and prayed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. I prayed and the next day it was solved.”

Mohammad said that as they had lost their mother, he decided Mary would be their mom. He said he believes his prayers are the reason why they soon received news that refugee sponsors in Toronto would welcome them with open arms.

Mohammad’s father explained that Sunni Muslims and Christians lived peacefully side by side in their community before dissenting Muslims moved in. He and his children had grown up with the belief that they and their Christian neighbours were all children of God. Mohammad said he enjoyed and trusted his Christian classmates in Iraq so much that he is applying to attend a Catholic high school here in Toronto.

He asked Spiritan Father Alex Osei to put the image of the Blessed Virgin Mother in each bedroom and has accompanied him to the occasional Mass.

Osei has been living at Brottier House, which is nestled in east-end Toronto, to assist the Shamsis since they moved into their temporary home Dec. 15. The Spiritans in Canada have been helping refugees since 1979, although their former Brottier House was closed about five years ago. Osei was quite enthusiastic about the new house and the many families the Spiritans plan to welcome there this year.

“As a director, I help them to integrate and I give them emotional and spiritual support ... and help them heal their wounds,” he said. “(The Shamsi family) are very happy here and every day the father expresses gratitude to the Spiritans for their help.”

Osei said the family tries to be as self-sufficient as they can, with the father cooking meals and getting his children ready each morning, but his health has been poor. The three youngest children recently enrolled in elementary school.

“The bishop’s call to help these refugees is very important to us,” Osei said. “And these refugees loved the Christians, they lived among them.”

When asked how he feels about the help they have received through Catholic Cross Cultural Services, Shamsi, said he thanks God every day.

“I thought there was no hope (in Iraq), that we were like rocks with no life,” he said. “We saw bodies in the street, heard bullets . . and (in Syria) I thought ‘how could I go to Canada not knowing English.’ But (Osei) made everything easy for me. He gave us life. He made us feel again like we are humans with dignity, which we did not feel like in our country,” he said.

Refugees stay at Brottier House for just a couple of months before moving into a more permanent home.

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