The masks we wear to slow the spread of COVID-19 hide the smiles that once helped us acknowledge strangers. But in the hamlet of Neerlandia, in rural Alberta, Canada, members of Neerlandia Christian Reformed Church donned masks to welcome a stranger.
Ayan was that stranger—and not just a stranger, but a refugee: Ayan and her four children arrived in Neerlandia in August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which is Canada’s Blended Visa Office-Referred program, identifies refugees and connects them to private sponsors for resettlement in Canada. IRCC and private sponsors share the costs of supporting refugees for one year. World Renew’s refugee program provides support and guidance to private sponsors such as Neerlandia CRC to sponsor families like Ayan’s.
Ayan fled Saudi Arabia as a political refugee and found asylum in Malaysia. “Women have no rights in Saudi Arabia,” she explained. Sadly, as a refugee she also had no rights in Malaysia, and she lived in constant fear that she’d be detained by police.
As the family prepared to resettle in Canada, Ayan’s children questioned her: “Where will we go to school?” None of the children had been thriving in the Malaysian school. “Will we like Canadian food?” In Malaysia, the family often did not have enough to eat. “Will we see snow?”
Once the family arrived in Neerlandia, masked refugee committee members delivered food during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period and communicated with the family via WhatsApp. The children had more questions: “Are there wild animals in the bushes?” The refugee committee members reassured them the animals are harmless. “Why is it so cold in the house?” Ayan needed instructions on how to use the thermostat.
After the quarantine ended, the refugee committee members continued to visit, and the family soon welcomed the faces behind the masks as friends. The children started school and made friends there too. And as the family became more accustomed to their new life, another question was answered: they saw snow!
On a chilly December day, Ayan smiled as her son Omar played in mounds of snow. “Snow is fun!” Omar yelled. “I like snow! I like Canada!”
Ayan and her family are not the only ones who have gained from this connection. One member of the refugee committee admits, “I love this family. They bring diversity into our community. It’s so great to learn (about) a new culture.” And for the refugee committee that has sponsored four BVOR families since 2015, one question remains: “When will we welcome another family?”